Immigrants and strangers

In a recent exercise with a group of TCKs, we did a Bible study in which I challenged the young people to name as many characters from Bible who didn’t fit into the culture of the people around them.

From the obvious ones like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who left their homeland in search of an inheritance, and the apostles who went out into the Hellenised world and eventually beyond to take the gospel, to Joseph and  Daniel, the successful Prime Ministers of foreign powers, we came up with a list that completely filled the flip chart.  Rahab, who left her people to throw in her lot with the Israelites, refugees Ruth & Naomi, and David living with his band of outcasts among the Philistines were some of the less likely examples.  In the end, most of the major characters in the Bible were up on the list.  I left them with the challenge: in the light of that list, how do you feel about finding it hard to fit into British culture?

For mission workers adult and juvenile, the challenge is generally seen as how to fit in, whether it’s coping with culture shock when we go to live in a foreign country, or reverse culture shock when we come back home – and remember that Britain isn’t ‘home’ for TCKs who’ve spent most of their lives in another country.  Yet is this really the right approach?

People working with TCKs try to help them fit in and feel at home, to quickly make friends at school and come to grips with the very different culture they’re living in.  If they feel they can fit in, they are generally a lot happier and content to be living here.  But when you take a long, hard look at our materialistic, sensual, consumerist society, why on earth would we want anyone to fit in?  Learn to cope with it, yes, but to feel like you belong?  Surely all Christians should be actively taking steps to make sure we don’t feel we belong in this world!  Isn’t that what John means by telling us that we are not of this world? (John 17:16, 1 John 2:15)

The New Testament summarises this sense of dwelling in but not belonging as being immigrants and strangers (1 Peter 2:11, CEV).  There is a very contemporary ring about these words, yet they were ancient legal categories referring to transient migrant workers and what we now call ‘resident aliens’.  People who weren’t from round here.  People who were different, who didn’t fit in.  Who didn’t have rights.  People who formed an economic underclass, who may actually have been desperate to go ‘home’ but couldn’t find jobs or food there.  The Roman empire, particularly its major cities like Rome, Corinth, Antioch and Alexandria were heaving with this great unwashed mass of migrant humanity, living a hand-to-mouth existence, moving from tenement to tenement, city to city, in a never ceasing effort to find food, work, money.

This colourful picture shows us how Peter expected Christians to feel about their place in the world around us.  Hebrews 11:13-16 picks up on this imagery and suggests that the Old Testament heroes of faith were like foreigners and strangers in the land, looking for a better home, a city given them by God.  Paul resolves this paradox in Ephesians chapter 2, where he says you are no longer strangers and foreigners but co-citizens with the saints and the household of God.

This teaching would have been hugely encouraging to the stateless, illiterate, itinerant workers who made up the bulk of the early church.  Many of them were slaves, most would have owned no property, and few would have been Roman citizens.  To have a sense of community, belonging, enfranchisement and home would have been beyond their wildest dreams, and they found it in the church.  This truly is good news for a broken world.

At this time of year we remember the birth of the ultimate cross-cultural mission worker who brought this good news.  He wasn’t from round here.  He moved into our world and brought a message of hope.  Like those he lived alongside, he wasn’t a citizen; he lived under military occupation.  For a while he was a political refugee.  He had few belongings, and moved from place to place, with nowhere to rest his head.  He was executed as a common criminal and buried in a borrowed grave.  This was someone with whom the urban underclass could identify, even though in his own world he was a King.

How much effort do his followers make today not only to take his message to immigrants and strangers, but to take it in the same way he did?

Coping with the stress of the city

I’ve had occasion in recent months to talk to several people about the stress caused by living in an urban environment.  While some of us thrive on the life, energy and dynamism of a city, many of us feel drained and stressed by the challenges of living in a densely populated area.  Most of the people I have spoken to about this live in the bustling, booming megacities of the developing world, and find that they cannot cope easily with the combination of heat, pollution, congestion and noise.  Cities like Manila, Bangkok and Mumbai teem with life and death, and all the messiness that goes with both.

So in a world where it can take you half the day to get from one side of town to the other, where the heat means that you have to sleep with the windows open for ventilation but the noise of traffic and barking dogs keeps you awake, where the water supply is at best intermittent and the sewerage worse, how can we keep our sanity?

The first thing we need is a sense of calling.  If we live in a city and hate it, if just being there lowers our spirits and raises our blood pressure, we need to consider carefully if we’re in the right place.  Has God called us to live in a place we loathe?  If it’s not a natural fit, we might be better off serving Him somewhere else, say in a smaller town up country.  Can the things that took us there be changed?  Is there now an acceptable standard of schooling in other towns which wasn’t there when we moved in?  Can more of our office work be done remotely?  Have road, rail or air connections improved?  But if we are convinced that we are where God has called us to be, then we need to develop a strategy to help us cope.

If it’s a struggle for us to live in the place we’re called to, like for everything else we need to receive grace.  God knows and understands the challenges.  We need daily, maybe even hourly, to ask him to give us the resources we need to help us cope.  We need to pray for patience, tranquillity, a forgiving spirit, and the grace to practise the presence of God in the most unexpected situations.  God is already in the slums, the traffic jams, the markets and the immigration offices – we just need to meet up with him there.

Practical strategies for coping with the stress of living in a city include:

Find people you enjoy being with.  One of the delights of a city is that it is full of people.  While they may be the ones we squash up with on the bus or sit next to in traffic jams, there are also many people with whom we can form vibrant and stimulating relationships.  Make connections – in churches, shops, offices and clubs – so that you can be glad you have so many good friends around you.

Find places you enjoy going to.  These can be malls, restaurants, cinemas, museums or art galleries.  They’re usually air-conditioned and often have a sense of calm about them.  Nice things happen there.  There’s no hustle and bustle in a museum, just silence and beauty.  Meditating on a work of art, treating yourself to an ice cream or enjoying a movie can provide a quick getaway from it all.

Find places you can take refuge.  Sometimes, to relieve the stress, you just need to get away.  This can be as little as just taking an hour out.  For example, drop into a smart hotel for a cup of tea in the midst of a busy day at government offices.  Break up a hot and tiring bus journey by taking five minutes to enjoy a local park as you change buses.  Visit a country club.  A round of golf, a dip in a pool or just relaxing in a pleasant environment can help.  Or, for a longer getaway, go for a short break.  Many mission agencies run holiday homes which are also available to outsiders.  In many countries there are Christian retreat centres where you can enjoy peace and quiet for a few days, recharge your batteries and listen to God.  If all else fails, find a small guest house or a cheap hotel for a weekend break.

Many of these places that I’ve mentioned may not exist in smaller towns in the country where you’re serving, so don’t take them for granted.  Recognise that they’re one of the privileges of living in a city which helps offset the challenges that you face there.  However, not all of us can afford them, so we also need to find a strategy for finding a refuge in daily life.  Here are some tips:

  • Ask friends to give you a really good set of headphones for Christmas.  They can completely shut out the noise of daily life, and you can relax by listening to your favourite music on them.
  • Keep lots of plants in your home so they humidify the air and create beautiful sights and smells.
  • Look for beauty in unexpected places, like market stalls.
  • If you can’t afford air conditioning, hang a wet towel in front of a fan so you get moist, cool air.
  • Keep a bucket with a lily and a goldfish in it instead of having a garden.
  • Buy a cheap drink from a supermarket and go and drink it in an air-conditioned mall.
  • Get some earplugs and wear them in bed.
  • Visit a local beauty spot and drink in the view.

If the stress of living in a city is getting too much for you, don’t suffer in silence.  Talk it over with a friend, colleague or church leader, and work out how many of these solutions are practical for you.

Urbanisation: the city of God?

Sao Paulo – one of the world’s largest cities

I have been to three conferences on urban mission in the last nine months, with one more scheduled for August.  Urbanisation is a current theme in missions, as churches and mission agencies slowly wake up to the fact that for the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas.  This means that the seething masses of unsaved humanity are predominantly to be found in cities, and increasingly in mega-cities, so it is there that we should concentrate our efforts to reach them.  Agencies such as Urban Expression, Redeemer City to City, Urban Neighbours of Hope and Eden Network are to be commended for spearheading this drive.

Many Christians avoid cities.  Biblically, cities can represent bad news: the first city, Babel, was a monument to human pride and self-sufficiency (Genesis 11:4) that remained a cipher for ungodliness right through to the last book in the Bible.  Cities are the opposite of the Garden of Eden to which we strive to return.  Even when we do move to cities, many Christians tend to congregate in the leafy suburbs rather than engaging with the inner city sink estates or peri-urban shanties.

The new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven…?

At conferences on urbanisation at least one speaker points out that the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city, as if this makes urbanisation the will of God.  Yet this simplistic reading of Revelation overlooks the fact that the imagery in this book is primarily pictorial or allegorical and is not necessarily to be taken literally.  The city in Revelation has nothing to do with urbanisation.  In Revelation, Babylon is a trope for a humanistic, materialist, decadent and oppressive world system, and the New Jerusalem represents a restoration of theocratic shalom in which God is immanent.

It should be remembered that historically Revelation was written under the shadow of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome (= ‘Babylon’) and the martyrdom of many thousands of Christians in the Colosseum, so the document reflects the desire among believers, both Jewish and gentile, for a place in which they could be enfranchised and safe.  Revelation does not describe the houses, transport hubs, offices and warehouses of the new city.  It simply states that there won’t be a need for a temple, and in a conscious reference back to the Garden of Eden, tells us that there will be life-giving trees and a river, and (most importantly) that God will live there among God’s people (Revelation 22:1-5).  Urbanisation is not the important issue; restoration of life and relationship is.

Restoring humanity to urbanity?

At one recent conference, Brazilian theologian Dr Rosalee Velloso Ewell asked participants to write down three words that described a city.  I imagine that most of us chose words reflecting a city’s creativity, industry and dynamism, or that described the noise, dirt, pollution and congestion.  Later in her presentation, she asked us how many of us wrote the name of a person.  Cue stunned silence.  One of the huge problems with cities is that they can become impersonal.  Cities have turned homes into housing and turned communities into districts, and we should remember that our missional work can become equally objective and systematic when it needs to be subjective and relational.

God does not love cities because God is in favour of urbanisation.  God loves people, and since people are congregating in cities, God’s love is concentrated in cities, not on cities.  Why should God not have mercy on millions of people who ‘do not know their right hand from their left’ (Jonah 4:11)?

But how many Christians are called like Jonah to the city, yet head for Tarshish instead?

Occupy the London Stock Exchange – what’s it all about?

You may have heard about the tent village which has been set up outside St Paul’s cathedral in the heart of London, to the consternation of many authorities.  The occupants are part of the global Occupy movement.  They represent anger at the excess of greed with which large financial institutions have caused the current economic crisis, frustration at the apparent inability of governments, shareholders and ordinary citizens to rein in these excesses, and a fundamental rejection of the capitalist system which they believe is morally flawed.

The Occupy movement began in New York in September 2011 and has rapidly spread to nearly 100 cities worldwide, inspired by Arab Spring protests, particularly in Cairo, and also mass demonstrations over the summer in Spain.  In October, demonstrators set up camp in public spaces in London and 15 other British cities.

The occupation outside St Paul’s was initially opposed by the police, but the Dean said he was happy for them to stay, and 150 tents sprang up.  A few days later he asked the protesters to leave the immediate vicinity so as not to impede access to churchgoers and tourists, but they refused, realising that they had gained valuable publicity as the UK media blew the issue into a crisis.  The Dean announced the closing of the cathedral on ‘health and safety’ grounds, much to the outrage of the press, who reminded us that the cathedral hadn’t been closed to visitors since it was bombed during the Second World War.  Although the cathedral reopened only a couple of days later, the crisis forced the resignation of three senior cathedral staff.  The police have not helped to calm the situation, seemingly treating the Occupiers aggressively and adding them to their lists of terrorist suspects.

It is possible that the real reason for the confused response of the St Paul’s leadership is that they are morally compromised in this issue.  While wanting on the one hand to be a voice for the poor and needy in society, St Paul’s is painfully aware that many people who work in the surrounding financial district form part of its congregation (and are therefore donors towards its massive upkeep costs) or are people to whom the cathedral is trying to reach out.  While the cathedral was closed to the public, it was alleged to be losing £23,000 a day in donations from tourists.

Meanwhile, the British public, egged on by the media, seems more concerned at accusations that the Occupiers are anarchistic workshy layabouts who are living on state handouts than they are about considering why people are driven to protest, in hostile conditions and worsening weather.  The stoic British are more concerned about their lovely cathedral than they are about the issues which inspire people to protest against capitalism and demand global democracy.  Are the Occupiers in fact unsung heroes like the Greenham Common Women or Brian Haw?

So what do the Occupiers think they can achieve?  They claim to be trying to initiate a dialogue about finding a way forward in shaping a more equitable society.  They hold public meetings and claim that many people who work in financial services are engaging with them, albeit very quietly.  They are also working hard on their public image, and while the camp appears scruffy it is free from litter and other waste matter.  While there have been isolated accusations of graffiti and urinating in the churchyard, the Occupy leadership are at pains to encourage the appearance of  responsibility.  One small example of this in action took place when I was visiting Occupy on a cold and very wet day in December.  I watched while one of the volunteer cleaners swept a huge puddle on the public pavement towards a drain, and when it failed to disappear, he lifted up the drain cover, thrust his hands into the mud and pulled out litter until the drain was clear.

Are they making an impact?  They have a well-presented information tent and even on a miserable midwinter day there was a steady trickle of visitors, making donations, signing the visitors book, and finding out more.  They have over 35,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 25,000 on Twitter, so there is a good groundswell of interest.  Yet they have not yet found a forum to get their voice heard nationally, which is why they can so easily be portrayed as a group of idealists dropouts.  And although left-wing heavyweights like Tony Benn and Billy Bragg have been public in their support, Occupy is (almost by definition) so outside mainstream that they are failing to attract wider political or media patronage.

The Occupiers originally tried to occupy Paternoster Square, right outside the London Stock Exchange, but were ejected by the police on the grounds that it was private property.  So they set up camp next door in the grounds of St Paul’s.  There is an interesting irony in this location which has not been noticed by commentators.  Could it be that deep in their subconscious the Occupiers are looking for a voice that will speak out on behalf of the poor and marginalised, that they are seeking moral leadership from the one institution that they know should speak out?

But are they looking in the wrong place?

City to City Conference

Last week Syzygy was at the City to City Conference in Berlin, where the headline speaker was pastor Tim Keller from the US, supported by a number of well-known church-planting specialists from a variety of European countries.  It was great to hear so many practical success stories and to meet so many young people all enthusiastically involved in church planting across the continent.  25 different countries were represented, and although some of their contingents were small, it was good to hear positive feedback from people from Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Russia, not countries normally associated with church-planting success.

Tim Keller was eloquent, thought-provoking and provided significant insights into a traditional-style church plant.  He has clearly thought through what he has done at Redeemer in New York and gave some detailed but necessarily condensed tips, particularly about understanding and engaging with city dwellers as opposed to suburbanites.  The most significant one was also one of the most obvious: if you do not really love the city you’re called to, the locals will see through you and not respond.

City to City Europe is a network growing out of Redeemer City to City, the international ministry of Keller and others, and has a vision for planting churches in city centre communities rather than the suburbs.  Their style is fairly traditional although their methodology is not, and if you are looking to plant an urban church anywhere in the world, you will find resources and networking opportunities through them.  They have on board people who know what they are doing, and to demonstrate it they have put on youtube some good quality videos about their churches in several European cities. Click to see the Dublin one.  I chose this partly because it’s in English, but also because I spent some time talking to Rob Jones at the conference and heard a lot more about his work, which sounds really good.

Although this conference was all about Europe, Redeemer City to City is active in some major cities of other continents and may well be of interest to those already at work in an urban context.

 

 

London’s burning

A north London carpet warehouse in flames

London was most spectacularly on fire in early August and it was not a Christian revival.  Many of you may have seen pictures of serious rioting and looting and wondered what was going on.  So too did many people living in Britain, as this conflagration seemed to burst from nowhere.

The rioting began a few days after police shot dead a man in north London, in circumstances that still have to be adequately explained, and then failed to give a full account of the event to his family and wider community, who accused the police of operating a shoot-to-kill policy.  A community protest march to the local police station became violent, and outbreaks of rioting rapidly spread to other parts of the city, and then to Birmingham and Manchester.

It is tempting to compare these riots to the disturbances of 1981.  Then there was a fairly new Conservative government making huge spending cuts leading to high unemployment.  There was a tough-talking Prime Minister threatening to be strong on law-and-order and there was a lot of deep-seated unrest in urban centres.  Many racial minorities and working-class people felt marginalised, leading to a sense of despair.  They felt the government didn’t really care about their problems.

 

So was this an action replay?  While this situation seems on the surface familiar, the roots of the past summer’s problems are different.  We must remember that Britain has changed significantly in 30 years and has different problems now.

The cause of the widespread rioting becomes clearer when the statistics are examined.  According to the Home Office there were 2,800 arrests, with 1300 people being charged.  It later transpired that three quarters of the 1000 people who have already appeared in court have a previous conviction or caution, the average number of previous convictions being 15.  One third of them had already spent time in prison for another conviction.  So it would appear that many of the participants were career criminals taking the opportunity to cause some havoc and enrich themselves with some free consumer goods.

A further 20% of the 1000 were juveniles, with estimates that as many as half the people taking part in the riots were school age.  The irony of this is that many of the activities for young people which normally take place during the school holidays have been scrapped this year due to government spending cuts.  Many of the looters used social media to alert their friends and to publish photos of cars they had burned or goods they had looted.  This may well be Britain’s first instance of ‘recreational rioting’.  Millions of pounds worth of property was burned, including shops, pubs, buses and cars, and a lot of goods were looted not only from large stores but also small family-owned businesses.  One man in Birmingham was killed trying to defend his shop.

This situation gives us a good opportunity to reflect that Britain is not a happy place at the moment.  Government cuts are holding wage rises below inflation, pensions reforms are triggering industrial dispute and unemployment has risen to 2.51m.  Nearly a million 16-24 year olds are unemployed.  Despite the fact that the UK is the world’s 6th largest economy, there is a general feeling that we are not as well-off as we should be, and things are only going to get worse.  Against this background, one can understand why people might feel like rioting.

One ray of hope though: in the aftermath of the riots thousands of ordinary Londoners turned up with brooms and bin bags to help clear up the mess.  Someone even set up a website to link volunteer cleaners with clean-up events.  The spirit of the Blitz lives on.