Christian Today Digest – December 2018

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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 recently on .

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Jesus disappearing from Christmas as Santa takes over

Four in 10 Brits do not know that Jesus is a part of the Christmas story, a new poll has found.

The survey of 2,000 British adults found that many are clueless when it comes to other major figures from the birth of Jesus as well, with 37 per cent saying they did not know that Mary and Joseph were a part of the story.

Half (49 per cent) had no idea about the angel Gabriel’s involvement yet six per cent thought Santa would make an appearance, according to the research for by OnePoll.

Asked what they thought the nativity story would look like if it were to happen today, one in 10 said they thought a unicorn would replace the donkey, 15 per cent said the three queens would replace the three kings – or Magi – and 10 per cent said Gabriel would appear to Mary via Instagram.

The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh would also be replaced with an iPhone (22 per cent), a Netflix subscription (18 per cent) and rose gold jewellery (16 per cent).

A survey last year found that one in five Brits did not know Jesus was born on Christmas Day and that one in 20 thought his birth was actually marked by Easter.

Other research has found that religious images and messages have all but disappeared from Christmas cards in favour of ‘festive’ images of Santa, snowmen and reindeer.

As Brits become increasingly unaware of the Christian origins of Christmas, despite it being the biggest holiday of the year, Jesus is also disappearing from retailers and shopping centres as they opt for Santa’s Grottos instead.

Research by the Scottish Catholic Observer has found that only four shopping centres out of 26 that it contacted across Scotland have a nativity scene this year.

They are Clyde Shopping Centre, EK East Kilbride, Kingdom Centre Glenrothes and Eastgate Centre Inverness. None that the newspaper contacted in the capital of Edinburgh planned to display one.

Some of the centres that without a nativity told the newspaper they had a Santa’s Grotto or ‘Christmas scene’ instead.

The newspaper carried out the survey after the Thistles shopping centre in Stirling, central Scotland, made headlines for refusing to display a nativity crib despite an appeal by local MP Stephen Kerr and complaints from Christians.

Thistles was accused of double standards after it said that it would not display a crib because it was ‘religiously and politically neutral’, while at the same time hosting a Christmas market.

The shopping centre lifted the ban this week after The Scottish Sun newspaper got behind the campaign and sent two actors to the shopping centre to perform a live nativity. The newspaper said shoppers ‘loved’ it.

The shopping centre has now agreed to display a Christian nativity scene for one day only this Sunday.

The U-turn was praised by the Scottish Catholic Church, which previously accused Thistles of being ‘Grinch-like’.

‘The management of the Thistles Centre, along with owners Standard Life Investments, are to be commended and congratulated for listening to the general public and responding with such generosity and inclusivity,’ it said.

‘They have recognised that contemporary Scotland should be a place that both respects and upholds religious liberty in the public square.’

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‘We are beginning to rebuild everything,’ says Syrian pastor

A pastor who has stayed in the Syrian city of Aleppo through years of conflict is hopeful for the future despite all the devastation.

The pastor, named only as Abdalla by Open Doors UK, has been leading a reconciliation ministry in Aleppo and says he can see signs of life coming back to the city.

‘We are beginning to rebuild everything. Even though the damage is big and huge, it is obvious to everyone there that life and reconciliation is coming back to Aleppo,’ he said.

As rebels and supporters of the regime continue to fight each other, he said the church had a special role to play in bringing all sides back together.

‘Real reconciliation is in the relationship,’ he said.

‘There are different parts of society and they all have unstable relationships with each other. So the church has the role to make these relationships stable. To bring all parties together.

‘The church’s role is to make the conversation between them and make them have a good relationship. When you solve the relationship you have a stable society and that’s what we are doing.’

His church has helped thousands of families with practical assistance over the years, something that is especially needed now in the middle of the cold winter.

Open Doors UK is working with the church and other partners to provide aid, including food and medicine, to around 12,000 families in Syria each month.

The war caused thousands of people to flee the country; those who have stayed are mostly the elderly, says Open Doors UK. Those still in Syria have few options in the face of a devastated economy, sky-high prices and inflation.

Pastor Abdalla said, ‘The need still exists. Some organisations have reduced the amount that they give. But the need is still there and we don’t know how we can meet the need in the days to come.

‘The number of families we help as a church is so big and the need is so big. A lady came to me and said that other organisations had stopped helping her. She begged me, “Please don’t stop helping us.” We need to help these people.’

In addition to receiving aid, Pastor Abdalla said it was important in the long term to find ways for people to get back into work again so that they could eventually become independent and regain their dignity.

‘We need to find people a job. Some people think that relief should be taken away and people should be helped to find jobs instead. But I think that both aims should go together for at least one year,’ he said.

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‘Lead us not into temptation’: Should the wording of the Lord’s Prayer be changed?

Moves to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer used by Catholics around the world appear to be gathering pace as the Italian Bishops’ Conference has submitted a new version to the Vatican for approval.

At issue is the wording of the line usually rendered in English as ‘and lead us not into temptation’. Pope Francis last year took issue with that, saying it was wrong to imagine God could tempt people to do wrong and that it was ‘not a good translation’. ‘A father does not lead into temptation, a father helps you to get up immediately,’ he said.

He suggested the French version, ‘do not let us enter into temptation’; Spanish-speakers have also changed their version, from ‘lead us not into temptation’ to ‘forgive us our mistakes’, though German bishops have declined to change the prayer.

The version suggested by Italian Catholics is, ‘abandon us not when in temptation’.

At issue is not so much the literal translation of the Bible in Matthew 6:13, which does clearly imply that God is being asked not to do something. The Greek eisenenkēs, means to ‘lead into’ or ‘bring in’; it is a second-person singular verb, in the active voice and the subjunctive (‘expressing wish or desire’) mood. If anything it is even more emphatic in the Latin favoured by the Church: ‘Et ne nos inducas in tentationem.’

But questions of translation always involve some consideration of what words mean in context; some interpretation is not only permissible but is required. In this context, the verse concludes with ‘but deliver us from evil’, seeming to make God both responsible for evil and responsible for deliverance from it, with very little room in the middle for human choice. And this, of course, reflects a certain understanding of the mysterious sovereignty of God. But it’s also true to say that while in the providence of God we may go through tempting and testing times, these are not to be sought after or welcomed (after all, we might fail the test!) – so this is a prayer of humility, showing a proper trust in God.

If a translation can make that clear, without doing violence to the text, it should be welcomed; as things stand, the version commonly used in English raises many questions which it isn’t always easy to answer.

One short and snappy alternative is Eugene Peterson’s in The Message: ‘Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.’

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Iran arrests 100 Christians ahead of Christmas

More than 100 Iranian Christians were arrested last week in another sign of increasing pressure on Iran’s believers.

According to Open Doors, most were allowed to return home after a few hours but were told to expect a call from the Ministry of Intelligence. All of them had their mobile phones confiscated.

People who were suspected to be the leaders of the groups of Christians were held in detention.

Open Doors UK’s head of advocacy, Zoe Smith, said long prison sentences have been given to Christians who refused to leave Iran after their previous arrests. However, long prison terms are now becoming common for Christians who have been arrested for the first time.

This spike in arrests is highly concerning. It follows an established trend of the Iranian government – as the number of converts to Christianity increase, so the authorities place greater restrictions on churches,’ she said. ‘The restrictions are worse for churches seen to be attended by Christians who have converted from Islam. Not only that, but the government is asking unreasonably high bail amounts and seeing longer prison terms for Christians.’

House churches for Christians from Muslim backgrounds have been raided and leaders given long prison sentences. Consequently, many converts have fled abroad or practise their faith in isolation. Christians from the government approved historical Armenian and Assyrian churches who reach out to Muslims have reported discrimination, harassment, physical abuse and imprisonment.

Smith continued: ‘Some Christians disappear from their communities after serving a sentence; church leaders are put under pressure to leave the country or face an arrest; house churches weaken as their members choose to decrease their meeting hours and minimise their activities; some Christians lose the contact with their churches altogether becoming isolated.’

[Iran is number 10 on the Open Doors World Watch List ranking the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.]

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Church night shelters expand to meet demands of rising homelessness

More than 2,000 Church of England congregations will be running or supporting night shelters this winter as homelessness projects expand to cope with rising demand.

Night shelters supported by churches are reporting increases in capacity with some adding extra beds and others opening for longer during the week.

This follows a series of reports this year indicating a rise in homelessness and rough sleeping.

In Manchester, the Greater Together Manchester (GTM) Night Shelter, a project run by Greater Together Manchester, part of Church Urban Fund’s Together Network, saw an increase in volunteers as winter got under way.

The shelter provides 12 beds every night for six months of the year with the provision due to expand later this month with a second night shelter funded through the A Bed Every Night scheme, set up by the Greater Manchester Mayor’s office. Nine out of the 10 venues used for the two shelters are Church of England buildings.

Guests, who would otherwise be rough sleeping, sit down with volunteers to eat a hot meal every night and are supported during the day to find new accommodation and access benefits.

Lily Axworthy, Development Officer for Greater Together Manchester, a joint venture between Church Urban Fund and the Diocese of Manchester, said: ‘Last year people were staying in the shelter for a shorter period of time, because their “move on” was managed more quickly. However, the number of people sleeping rough has carried on increasing.

‘What has been really heartening this year has been seeing an increase in the number of volunteers. We have more than 200 volunteers already. People really want to do something practical to help and something they feel will make a difference, particularly where they have experienced walking past people on the streets. By volunteering their time, they can make that practical difference.’

In south London, The Robes project provides beds for 35 guests a night over five months during the winter season. The night shelter uses a network of 30 church venues – 23 of them Church of England – in Southwark and Lambeth and is supported by more than 1,000 volunteers. The project started as a pilot scheme in 2007 and now employs advisers who work closely with guests.

George Martin, chair of Robes, who is part of the congregation at Southwark Cathedral, said: “More people are on the streets than ever before. Last year we looked after 81 guests and we moved 44 into accommodation. We work with our guests all year round, we have a fantastic Wednesday lunch club catering for up to 20 people a week. I think it is the most successful ecumenical project in the diocese and it has brought the different churches together.’

Rt Rev James Langstaff, Bishop of Rochester, who is also Chair of the Christian housing charity, Housing Justice, said: ‘The reasons why people end up on the streets are complex, with many facing mental ill-health, many having been in care as children, and a good number having been released from prison.

‘Behind the distressing rise in numbers, we must remember that behind each statistic is a person, a human being made in God’s image and thus worthy of dignity.

‘I join others in praying that one day such shelters will not be necessary. But while they are, I give thanks for all those who work tirelessly to serve those who live on our streets or in other unstable settings. Their work is a valuable reminder to us all of God’s priority for the vulnerable and marginalised and of the value of every human person.’

However, while church night shelters are well staffed at Christmas with a surge in volunteers seeing many turned away because they are not needed, charities have said they struggle to recruit people to help during the rest of the year. A Guardian report quotes Claire Bonham, the strategic lead on volunteering at the Salvation Army, who said: ‘It’s lovely that people think of others at Christmas. It’s just that a cold February evening at a night shelter is not on people’s minds because they’ve done Christmas and moved on.

‘I’m not knocking people at all, but I’d love people to volunteer all year round.’

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European church leaders call for ‘respect and compassion’ towards refugees

Dozens of church leaders have signed a joint statement calling for the European Union to ‘cherish the dignity’ of refugees.

In their Christmas Statement to the European Union, the leaders said they wanted Europe to be a ‘welcoming and inclusive community’.

‘We call on the nations and the people of Europe, on the political leaders and on our Churches: don’t allow us to become indifferent to the suffering of others,’ the statement read.

‘Let us rather cherish the dignity of those who need our help and recognise that welcoming the stranger is part of our Christian and European heritage.’

The statement goes on express ‘deep concern’ over Europe’s response to new arrivals of migrants, saying that the right to seek asylum needs to be protected.

‘It is unacceptable that policies of “managing migration” lead to situations where the massive loss of human life on the way to Europe has become normal and exploitation and violence an everyday reality,’ it reads.

‘We need meaningful safe passages (e.g. resettlement, humanitarian visa, realistic labour migration policies) and search and rescue on the way to Europe.’

The church leaders said that while it was important to try to improve conditions in the countries migrants are coming from, Europe should for ‘as long as reasons for migration exist [...] accept its obligation to welcome and protect – as one of the richest and most developed regions of the globe; instead of coercing third countries into stopping migration into Europe’.

They also renounced the common concern that accepting in large numbers of migrants is harming European societies.

‘Policies should address the specific needs of new arrivals in Europe and encourage their potential to contribute, while at the same time honouring the traditions and needs of inhabitants alike,’ they said.

‘Discussions on migration and refugees should be characterised by dignity, respect, and where possible compassion. Spreading of inaccurate, unverifiable and divisive messages only makes the challenge of living together more difficult.

‘Conflicts will inevitably arise where people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds are living together, particularly under rapidly changing circumstances.

‘Living together in diversity can be both enriching and challenging. We ask for a spirit of tolerance and goodwill and a commitment to constructive engagement.’

Signatories of the letter include several church leaders from the UK: the General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Rev Lynn Green; Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev Susan Brown; Chair of the European Chapter of Cherubim and Seraphim Churches, Apostle Pastor John Adegoke; President of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Michaela Youngson; Moderators of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, the Rev Nigel Uden and Mr Derek Estill; and Bishop Jonathan Clark of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

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What would John the Baptist say about Brexit?

On Sunday, the lectionary (our three year cycle of Bible readings) gave us this reading from Luke’s Gospel: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’

As I tap on my keyboard, I have parliament on TV in the background. The prime minister has just pulled the vote promised for Tuesday. The government is seeking a further reassurance on a part of a Brexit deal that still may never make it to or through parliament. The government’s partners have effectively walked away. There is no united opposition. By the end of the week we may have a vote, we may have a vote of no confidence, and actually none of us really know.

Important and powerful people are doing their thing. Some of them are advancing their own interests and posturing for power and prestige. Some are listening to the fears of the people, at least the people who are likely to cause the most disruption if they are not heard. Some are trying to hold out for a national interest, in a nation that is four nations with many diverse interests.

Two thousand or so years ago in a nation of many identities, a posturing emperor was ruling. His emissary was delivering on the promise of empire. On a local level, two brothers were just about holding on to power, feeling the need to quash local uprisings and insurgencies to bolster their own authority. Important and powerful people were doing their thing.

And in the wilderness, Luke tells us, the word of God, came to John, son of Zechariah.

John spoke from a place where God’s people had historically found themselves lost and wandering. In his own time, we might argue that the wilderness was the place of the odd and ostracised. And yet this ordinary man called a people back to what they were always supposed to be. Calling out their hypocrisy, John was not afraid to challenge those with power. For those with less power, he gave a reminder to turn around, to not cheat on your taxes, to only have what you need. To the guards he said do not blackmail or threaten people. In all of these things he pointed to Jesus.

It seems to me that we are all invited to follow after the way of John the Baptist – Jesus himself says that there is no better example (my paraphrase). While leaders posture and prevaricate, we are invited to remind ourselves and others not to cheat on our taxes, to only have what we need. We are invited to act gently, not with threats or blackmail but with an invitation to others to change their minds. We may do this with words, but in our wilderness times we are as likely to do it with small acts of gentle compassion and care.

Under the Brexit bluster we cannot forget the nearly 700,000 who have used a foodbank in the last six months. We can’t forget the homeless, the hopeless and the hungry. We cannot forget that we have a role to call all of us back to a true humanity of seeing God in the face of the other. And when we do this, we too will point to Jesus.

Like John the Baptist, there may come a moment where the ordinary people who point to God, have to confront the powerful and tell them clearly that what they are doing is wrong. We may pay dearly as John did. But until then my Advent prayer is that in the midst of the political machinations we might go on doing what is right to prepare the way for Jesus.

[Rev Jude Smith is the team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds. Follow her on Twitter @gingervicar ]

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