Christian Today Digest – Issue 2 2019

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How one church is using handy work to tackle men's isolation

Men have a bit of a reputation when it comes to enjoying DIY and a church outside Manchester is tapping into that time-honoured hobby to help breakdown loneliness among men in the local community.

St Paul's, Heaton Moor, is pioneering the Men in Sheds initiative to give particularly older men in the community a chance to meet up each week around wood working.

Instead of pottering away by themselves in a shed at the bottom of the garden, the project invites them to meet up with other like-minded men to indulge in their love of making things.

For the church, it's an important way of reaching out into the community and making the church building more widely accessible.

The church hosts wood working sessions in the choir vestry each week, where in addition to learning how to make useful objects, the meet-up gives the men a chance to socialise and talk.

Woodworking projects have included making bird and bat boxes, plant troughs and bottle openers.

The project got off the ground after the church reached out to local charity Pure Innovations for ideas on how it could better support people who struggle with loneliness or mental health issues.

Pure Innovations is based in nearby Stockport and works to help disabled and disadvantaged people live independently.

Together with local community group, Heatons Together, they hosted a meeting at St Paul's on the issue of mental wellbeing and loneliness.

At the meeting, local men were asked what kind of group they would want to be part of and Men in Sheds was started as a result of their suggestions.

Men in Sheds coordinator, Anthony Williams, said the project is having a noticeable impact on the men coming along.

One of them didn't have much contact with people outside of the home because he was a carer, Williams said. But now he's starting to become much more outgoing.

For some of the men in the group, it's the only social meet-up they go to all week.

'Men in Sheds is aimed at older men who don't have a lot of outlets or opportunities to come together and chat,' said Williams.

'Instead of doing things in a shed at the bottom of the garden, they come along and do it as a group.

'For some it's the only thing they do during the week.'

In recognition of its success, the project last year won a 'Church for a Different World' award from the Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Rev David Walker.

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Christian ministry ship celebrates decade of global mission and outreach

Christian ministry ship Logos Hope is celebrating 10 years of bringing the Gospel as well as practical support to churches and communities around the world.

The ship, operated by Operation Mobilisation, was first launched with an international crew of 400 Christian volunteers in 2009.

It is the world's largest floating book fair, carrying over 5,000 titles in English as well as languages local to the ports where the ship docks.

The book fair is a unique concept, allowing church leaders to come onboard and find vital Christian and educational resources that they might not otherwise have access to.

In the last 10 years, the ship has visited 116 ports in 68 countries and territories, and welcomed 8 million visitors up her gangways.

While in port, members of the crew team up with local churches to undertake community outreach and evangelism projects. Members of the public are also welcomed on board to tour the ship and browse the bookstore.

To date, the ship has sold nearly 2.5 million Christian books and Bibles, and another 5.5 million non-Christian titles in its bookstore.

Although the ship has been used for Christian ministry for the last decade, the vessel is actually much older, having started out as a car ferry in Germany 46 years ago.

She was purchased by Operation Mobilisation in 2004 and spent the next few years being fitted out for ministry. The refurbishment included the addition of two new decks and she finally entered service in 2009, following in the footsteps of OM's other ministry ships, Logos, Doulos and Logos II.

Her maiden voyage as a ministry ship was from Koege, Denmark, to Gothenburg, Sweden, on 19 February 2009.

Captain Dirk Colenbrander, of the Netherlands, who was at the helm on that voyage, said: 'We sailed out backwards, being pulled by a tug, because the port of Koege had no space to turn around.

'Then a tug boat had to break up the ice so we could get alongside in frozen Gothenburg! It was the first time some of our crew had ever experienced snow.'

A decade on, Captain Dirk still serves as interim Master.

'One of the most significant things for me is the sharing of personal stories by the crew as we leave each port and hearing how God has used them to change the lives of people they met in that area,' he said.

OM Ships' Chief Executive Officer, Seelan Govender, of South Africa, has spent 14 years living on board the ministry ships.

'I feel blessed to work with dedicated Christians who serve sacrificially on board and on shore to maintain the constant operation of the ship. What I believe continues to draw people to the vessel is that it is a catalytic platform: equipping people and mobilising them to create vibrant communities of Jesus followers wherever they go,' he said.

The milestone tenth anniversary is being celebrated in Chile. It is one of the stops being made by the Logos Hope as part of a two-year tour of Latin America and marks the ship's first visit to the South American continent.

The visit is in collaboration with OM Latin America and has the aim of mobilising more Latin American believers for mission to some of the least-reached communities around the world.

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Christian Easter egg goes plastic-free as bishop calls for a packaging 'revolution'

The only chocolate Easter egg to explain the story of Jesus' death and resurrection in its packaging is going plastic-free for the first time.

Around 80 million Easter Eggs are sold each year across the UK, usually with several layers of packaging, including boxes, plastic casing and foil wrappers.

This year, the faith-based Real Easter Egg will be available to buy without plastic seals, stickers or packaging.

The change has been made in response to a survey by the egg's manufacturer, the Meaningful Chocolate Company, in which 96 per cent of Christians said they believed it was important for Easter eggs to be plastic free.

The Meaningful Chocolate Company's David Marshall said: 'Easter eggs don't have to cost the earth. We have replaced plastic bags, tamper-seals and Best Before stickers with paper versions.

'There is still the same amount of chocolate in the Real Easter Egg and the box sizes are the same but the redesign means our Dark and Original Egg will save at least 5 tonnes of plastic and 175 tonnes of card in the next five years.'

The change has been welcomed by church leaders including the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu.

'I am delighted that an Easter Egg, which shares the story of Easter, is leading the way by reducing packaging,' he said.

'Clearly there is demand for unnecessary plastic to be removed from food packaging and I encourage people to let other manufacturers know that changes can be achieved.'

The Bishop of Salisbury, the Rt Rev Nicholas Holtam, said it was time for more Easter egg manufacturers to overhaul their packaging.

'As the lead bishop on the environment for the Church of England I am delighted that an Easter Egg, is taking seriously the care of our planet,' he said.

'This gets my approval. Indeed, the packaging of Easter eggs needs a revolution.'

In addition to being plastic free, the card and foil used in the Real Easter Egg packaging is 100 per cent recyclable. and it is certified Fairtrade, meaning that growers receive a fair price for their produce.

The Meaningful Chocolate Company also makes the egg without palm oil, the farming of which is believed to be a major factor in global deforestation.

The Real Easter Egg has become a staple of the Easter season for Christians in the UK after launching in 2010.

The chocolate egg was launched off the back of crowdfunding by churches and schools as an alternative to the swathes of secular eggs that made no mention of Jesus or the real meaning of Easter in their packaging.

In addition to the egg, a 24-page colour booklet is included in the box telling the Easter story. Part of the profits are also given over to charitable causes.

It was initially only available through mail order because big brand supermarkets refused to stock it. But after three years of campaigning by Church of England bishops, they finally caved in to pressure.

It is now available to buy at major supermarket chains, including TESCO, ASDA, Morrisons and Waitrose.

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Christians protest outside Nigerian High Commission on anniversary of Leah Sharibu's abduction

Christians gathered in London on February 19 to protest the ongoing captivity of Nigerian Christian schoolgirl Leah Sharibu.

The protest outside the Nigerian High Commission coincided with the one-year anniversary of the 15-year-old's abduction by militant group Boko Haram.

She was taken on February 19, 2018, along with over 100 of her classmates. While the others were released several weeks later, the group has continued to hold Sharibu over her refusal to deny her Christian faith.

Last October, a breakaway faction of Boko Haram, the Islamic State West African Province, declared that it would hold Sharibu and another captive, Christian mother-of-two and UNICEF worker Alice Ngaddah, as 'slaves' for life.

'Based on our doctrines, it is now lawful for us to do whatever we want to do with them,' the group proclaimed.

CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: 'Leah Sharibu has now been in the hands of this violent sect for 365 days and we are deeply concerned by the lack of government action to secure her release.

'We continue to call on the government of Nigeria to do everything in its power to expedite the release of this courageous schoolgirl, alongside that of her fellow hostages.

'We also call on the government of Nigeria to ensure that the army is sufficiently equipped to combat Boko Haram effectively, particularly in light of the surge in activity by both factions, and their threat to undermine the electoral process.'

The protest in London came days after Sharibu's mother, Rebecca, pleaded with the government to take action to free her daughter at a press conference in capital Abuja last week.

Open Doors' head of advocacy Zoe Smith said: 'Leah Sharibu was kidnapped because she was a girl and held captive because she was a Christian. She personifies the incredibly vulnerable position of Christian women in northern Nigeria.

'It is saddening and outrageous that Leah remains in captivity, abused as a PR tool and negotiating pawn by Boko Haram. We urge the Nigerian government and the international community to increase their efforts to secure her release and reunite her safely with her family.'

Nigeria is number 12 on the 2019 World Watch List, Open Doors' annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution.

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'The 21': The story of the Coptic Christian martyrs

Exactly four years ago, on a beach in Libya on February 15, 2015, 21 orange-clad men were beheaded by fighters of Islamic State.

The actual moment of death is missing from the video, perhaps because it is too amateurish and messy to fit the careful choreography of the atrocity. But it's still a moment that made it utterly clear to the world that this was an evil with which there could be no compromise.

Twenty of the men were Coptic Christians from Egypt, all from the same small area and identifiable by the small crosses tattooed at the base of their thumbs. The 21st, Matthew, was from West Africa, perhaps Ghana. No tattoo for him, and his captors are said to have told him to go. However, he said 'I am a Christian' and chose to share the others' fate. Like them, his demeanour facing death was extraordinarily peaceful. It is this evident willingness to die, with the last whisper of 'Ya Rabbi Yassou!' – 'O my Lord Jesus!' that has led to them being hailed as martyrs by the Coptic Church.

Their story is told in a fine account by novelist Martin Mosebach, whose book The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs is an extraordinary exploration of the spirituality that allowed these 'ordinary men' – and this ordinariness is a recurring theme in the book – to rise to such a height.

In February 2017, Mosebach travelled to Upper Egypt to meet the families of the 21 and other people who knew them. Apart from Matthew, they were Coptic migrant workers from Egypt, who came from poor farming families and had travelled to Libya to find better paid work. In Libya, they had been sleeping side by side on the floor in a large room, so they could save more money to send home to their families. Some of them could read but probably not write – others were illiterate.

Mosebach explores their lives and homes, and the landscape of their faith. Their black and white passport photographs punctuate the pages. He paints a picture of a people who for the last 1,400 years, since the Arab Muslim invasion, have been a minority, often oppressed and downtrodden. But their outsider status has helped preserve their greatest treasure: their Christian faith, which also preserves them in the face of all their trials.

This faith is profound and personal, and not only among 'professional' Christians, the priests and monks. Back to 'ordinariness': Mosebach interviews a bishop who asks him why he is so curious about the martyrs. 'This is not a Western church in a Western society. We are the Church of Martyrs. I take no special risk when I say that not a single Copt in Upper Egypt would betray the faith.'

As Mosebach says: 'Well, if they were indeed your average young men, then the bar for what was average had been set pretty high.'

And this from a young woman: 'They were ready to die, and even longed to. We all do! We're all ready and yearning because we all want to vouch for Christ.'

Mosebach's journey, as a German traditional Roman Catholic into the faith that could make martydom routine, is fascinating; he has long been interested in Oriental Christianity. Roman Catholicism, he tells Christian Today, is in a 'deep crisis'. 'There is a complete incapacity to find a real religious language; it is shrinking, losing influence.' In this 'martyrdom of illiterate young people', he says, we are reminded that 'the real essential of Christianity is not to talk about the problems of the world, but to witness to the resurrection'.

'I found that seeing real martyrs is much more important than what any pope or bishop or theologian may quote or say in everyday media,' he says. 'It was a return for me to the real important thing.'

Reflecting on the young girl who said she was ready to die for her faith, he suggests Coptic Christians may have a different concept of 'truth'. 'In the Western world we have had a particular problem in the last 200 years with the word "truth". It's something embarrassing. We are sceptical, we doubt and we think there are so many kinds of truth, and what is for one person the truth is for the next a lie, or meaningless, or that every age has its own truth. But Jesus said, he is the truth. The words of Jesus are big rocks on the way of our thinking. You cannot diminish them.'

The Coptic Church – with its 1,400-year history unruptured by Reformations and schisms – has preserved this notion of truth unsullied. Even its liturgy is mainly musical and visual: it has no place for the argumentative and intellectual sermon that characterises Western devotion. Consequently, says Mosebach, Coptic Christianity is a spiritual time capsule, which has preserved for the Western church an image of the early church. The martyrdoms under the Emperor Diocletian and the martyrdoms on that beach in Libya are not different in kind: Copts know how to die, because they remember. As Mosebach says in his book: 'In their isolation, the Copts of Upper Egypt experience the events of the early church as if they had only happened yesterday, and this helps them preserve the simple core of the Christian message.'

What is the future for Copts in Egypt? There are regular outbreaks of violence against them. Many are very poor. They are used to being marginalised; the Egyptian government will not even count them, because there are probably more of them than they think. His last interlocutor, a hotelier, asked what can be learned from all this, says: 'Whatever you do, don't belong to a minority! That's what can be learned!'

But Copts are used to being a minority, and they are not going anywhere.

Mosebach has a novelist's insight and way with words. The 21, his first major non-fiction work, is also a fine piece of journalism. It helps us to understand, if not the ferocity of the killers, the quiet heroism – the ordinary heroism, perhaps – of the martyrs.

And as he says, reflecting on the explosive mood of Egypt today: 'Meanwhile, simply by renouncing revenge and retribution, the invisible army of martyrs grows, ever greater and ever more powerful.'

'The 21: A Journey into the Land of the Coptic Martyrs' is published in the UK by Plough Publishing, £18.99.

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In the face of Brexit turmoil, every church must be a peacemaker, says Archbishop of Canterbury

Christians must make sure they are praying for the nation's leaders, not standing on the sidelines and judging them, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said.

Addressing the Church of England on the last day of Synod on Saturday, Justin Welby said Brexit was a 'historic moment' as he called on churches do their part to heal divisions and foster reconciliation in their communities, starting with five days of prayer as the deadline approaches.

He acknowledged that even members of the Church of England were not uniform in their views on Brexit but said that regardless of what happened, they were called to continue loving others 'in ways that show, whatever the shocks, we remain confident and active serving the risen Christ in the power of the Spirit'.

'But one way or another, better or worse, life will go on – and God's mission is not stopped by such events,' he said.

He admitted, however, that great uncertainty lay ahead, particularly for the economy and how the changes will affect poorer communities.

He also accused politicians of failing to properly address sources of 'pain and exclusion' in British society that run the risk of creating greater division and 'ultimately strife'.

'But Brexit has revealed how our politics and society have, for many decades, not paid sufficient attention to the common good: that shared life of a society in which everyone is able to flourish,' he said.

The Archbishop went on to challenge the church to foster peace, speak up for justice, and support the most vulnerable in society.

'Now is the time for every part of the church in every place to be a peacemaker. To play our part in uniting our country, and to put the most vulnerable at the centre of national life,' he said.

'We cannot ignore the warnings that have been proffered about the possible profound impact that the next months may possibly have on the poorest of our society.

'We must be ready for any difficulties and uncertainties, and not allow any destructive forces to create further divisions in society.

'It is true that no predictions on the economy are certain. That is not project fear. It is saying that where there are risks it is the strongest, not the weakest, who must take the weight of the risk.'

He concluded with a call to Christians to pray for the nation's leaders, including those they do not agree with.

'Those who bear the grievous burdens of political leadership, on all sides, by definition are faced with resolving the current crisis. We must not forget that the burdens on them are enormous,' he said.

'We must pray, as Paul tells Timothy, for "all who are in high positions" (I Tim 2:2). It is easy to stand on the sidelines and judge; we do not have to make the decisions.

'But we must commit to pray for them. For those who are close to them, for their wisdom, and their blessing. That does not mean agreeing; it means loving, as we have been loved by Christ.'

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Down with this sort of thing: Brexit and the politics of opposition

Author Dave Luck considers a better way to approach disagreements over Brexit.

I love the 90s Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted. The show is based around three hapless Catholic priests exiled to a barren place called Craggy Island. In one episode the feared Bishop Len Brennan orders them to go to the local cinema to protest against a film that is being shown. As a result Father Ted and Father Dougal turn up with placards saying 'Down with this sort of thing' and 'Careful now' and chain themselves to the railings. The joke is that the protest leads to a huge increase in curious people turning up to see the film.

Whether it's in the church or politics, just opposing things isn't very helpful.

It's often said that been said that the British parliament lends itself to adversarial politics with the parties facing each other across the chamber. It usually descends to the regular bear-pit of shouting and abuse we see at prime minister's question time. Once in a while a new party leader will be elected pledging to avoid this with 'a new kind of politics' but soon enough we're back to Punch and Judy.

Most other governments sit in a horseshoe so that the emphasis is on debate, not eyeballing the other side. Personally I'm all for turning Westminster into a museum and building a new fit-for-purpose parliament somewhere central – maybe on an industrial estate near Kettering – but I imagine I'm in a minority there.

The point is that more than ever, we are locked in the politics of opposition when we need to find something more grown-up more urgently than ever. Whatever your political persuasion, no one can doubt that Brexit is a car crash. The most astute comment I heard when the government's Brexit plan was resoundingly defeated was that Theresa May had united the country – against her plan. The problem is that there is no majority for any credible alternative. Unsurprisingly, we cannot find a clear and advantageous approach to Brexit because what was put forward at the referendum was not a coherent proposal but a nationalistic slogan.

Following the government's defeat, Theresa May offered to meet Jeremy Corbyn – who refused to do so without his terms being met. We are in a national crisis and the leader of the opposition won't engage in a discussion about what to do. Why? Because he is the leader of the opposition and he is too busy opposing.

It is a common tactic of the opposition to sit back, oppose and watch the government implode so you can take your turn at the reins. Ed Milband typified the 'down with this sort of thing' politics while doing very little to come up with any sort of meaningful alternative. Jeremy Corbyn is in danger of doing the same, of sitting back and waiting for the government to collapse when we need him to put forward some meaningful solutions.

I've been reading in the past couple of days about government plans to address teacher shortages and the workload that is driving people, including my wife, out of the profession. I am encouraged that Damian Hinds, the education secretary is talking about this. I am even more encouraged that he is talking to the teaching unions and coming up with some practical suggestions, including reducing data collection and lesson planning resources. It suggests he has engaged with the reality of what is actually happening in schools.

To be clear, I think this government's cuts to education are a disgrace and the money in the budget for 'little extras' was an insult when schools are cutting support staff and often functioning in ramshackle buildings. I am instinctively cynical when it comes to Tory politics but in this instance I think the initiative is worthy of a cautious welcome. Labour needs to do better than just use this as another platform to criticise.

It's easy to criticise and oppose but it doesn't get us very far. And too often, the church has been known as a place of disapproval rather than one where everyone is welcomed and the offer of a new life is set out.

As we were reminded at my church yesterday the Bible says that 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble' (1 Peter 5:5).

Where we recognise that we don't know it all, we realise our need for help, our need to listen and learn from others. When we do genuinely believe we have answers to offer, we need to offer them in dialogue rather than hurling them at the other side. There is nothing more futile in these times than protesters trying to shout the loudest and social media echo chambers.

If we truly love this country we need to recognise our shared ownership of it and find some common ground.

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