The direct route to God

Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness,

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

Let every valley be lifted up

and every mountain and hill made low.

Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and everyone will see it”

(Isaiah 40: 3-5)

I have blogged before about the “Highway of Holiness” which Isaiah prophesied about.  The point he was making is that it should be easy for people to come and find God, like using a Roman road going straight to its destination rather than the “Rolling English Road” of G K Chesterton, with its twists and turns and unexpected hazards.

Isaiah is fond of the image of a motorway running from Assyria to Egypt by way of Jerusalem.  Mostly it’s there to make it easy for Israelites to return to God (11:16, 35:8, 49:11) but it’s also there for the people of the surrounding nations, represented by the two superpowers of the day, to turn to the Lord – see 19:23 where the prophet has a vision not of the destruction of Israel’s enemies (as one might expect) but of them thriving as they turn en masse to God and are blessed.

God has been at work among the people of the middle east for a while now, giving them incredible dreams revealing the risen Lord Jesus to them.  For the last couple of years, he has been bringing them in great numbers to Europe, where it is much easier for Christians to meet them, show them the love of God and help them on their journey.  Some countries have tried to block this road but the people still come and the church, on the whole, welcomes them.  Christians are doing a fabulous job of helping in settlement camps, running welcome centres, and supporting the new arrivals to their neighbourhood.  But more can still be done.  I blogged about the opportunity the refugee crisis brings us over two years ago and nothing has changed.

Seventy years ago, the Windrush generation started to come to Britain.  Although many were enthusiastic Christians they were not universally welcomed into the principal churches, so they went and started their own.  Some of these churches went on to become vibrant, growing denominations which have experienced significant revival.  But the sad truth is that in most cases, we still have white churches and black churches, and very few genuinely intercultural ones.

Let’s not make the same mistake with people from the middle east.  Let’s welcome them with open arms.  In 70 years, we do not want to see God blessing a thriving muslim-background community of believers while more traditional churches continue to close their doors.  This is a wonderful opportunity for us to prove we have learned from our past mistakes and be genuinely inclusive towards those who are different.

A Gothic horror?

No, not those Goths!

No, not those Goths!

In the spring of 376 AD, thousands of hungry, weary Goths arrived on the northern bank of the Danube, in what is now Romania, and asked the Romans permission to cross the river into safety.  Displaced by war and violence in their homelands further east, they had migrated to what they believed was safer territory behind the Roman frontier.

For Rome, it was a wonderful opportunity.  Thousands of new citizens who could become workers, soldiers, farmers, taxpayers and consumers could breathe life into the old empire.  But it was also a threat.  Such a large influx could disrupt lifestyle, change culture, bring unhelpful new influences and potentially crime and violence.

The Romans prevaricated, and by not being decisive, lost the initiative.  The Goths forced their way in but instead of being settled and absorbed, they remained a separate cultural (and military) identity within the empire.  Within a few years war broke out, the Goths had inflicted on Rome its biggest defeat in centuries and killed an emperor.  For decades they migrated around western Europe looking for a home, and became the first invaders to sack Rome in nearly a millennium.  They destabilised the empire and contributed to the collapse of the western half of the empire.

1640 years later, is Europe now in the same position as the Romans were?  Faced with a massive influx of people from different cultures, desperate for safety, jobs, a home, will we make them into friends or enemies?  How are they going to influence Europe?

This is the background to next month’s EEMA conference on refugees.  Refugees in Europe – a Fence or a Bridge? will consider what the church in Europe will be doing in the face of the current refugee crisis/opportunity.  How do we show we care about refugees?  What changes are going to be forced on the European church as a result of this?  Is it legitimate to take this as an opportunity to evangelise displaced people, and if it is, how do we do it?  What does this mean for mission from, to and in Europe?

For more information on this key conference, which will be held in Bucharest (in Romania, where the Goths arrived) from 21st-24th June, go to the EEMA website.  We’re going – we hope to see you there!

The refugee issue

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

The migrants who have so spectacularly been coming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East are already having a huge impact on Europe which will last for generations.  Whether this impact is revealed in the vast numbers of new residents taken into countries like Germany and Sweden, or the huge fences that have gone up around other countries’ borders to keep out even people only wishing to pass through those countries, the entire continent is being affected.  In the UK, the first of the refugees taken from camps in Syria are beginning to arrive, and across the continent politics is being affected by the argument between those who say we should show more compassion to our fellow humans, and others who say our countries are already full and charity begins at home.

These issues are so huge that many individual Christians are feeling disempowered, despite caring deeply about the issue.  They feel they can’t change anything, have no impact on government policy and don’t know what they can do to help.  So here are some of our suggestions.

Pray – It goes without saying that refugees, whatever their religious beliefs, need our prayers.  So do the charities, churches, government officials and individuals working with them.  Many refugees have seen their loved ones killed, and have lost their homes and communities.  They are traumatised, and so are many of the overworked counsellors trying to help them.

Donate  – Many of the charities working with refugees could do so much more to help if they had more resources, to help them feed and clothe people in refugee camps, provide education and healthcare, and help to welcome and settle immigrants.

Be informed –  Many mission agencies are working with refugees – find out which ones they are through their websites.  The European Evangelical Alliance has an excellent webpage, and the latest edition of Vista addresses the issue of migration.  The Refugee Highway Partnership has a major role to play in this and the European Evangelical Mission Association is hosting a conference in June focussing on refugee issues and the church’s response.  Find out if your network or denomination has a policy, spokesperson on refugee issues and get involved.

Help – Volunteering to help a charity might seem like a huge challenge, but they may need people to sort through donated clothing, distribute food packages and do other tasks which their own staff may be overworked with and would value some help with.

Do – Find out if any refugees are coming to your town, get in touch with whoever is coordinating care for them, and ask what you can do to help.  Over 50 local authorities have been helping to settle refugees so there are probably some near you.  They will need practical support, help understanding your country’s dominant culture and language, and friendship.  You don’t have to be particularly skilled to show them around your community, or drive them somewhere, or go with them to meetings with benefits officers to make sure they understand.

Serve –  Many of us have skills which we don’t think about using to help mission workers.  We can cook, drive, and speak the dominant language of the host community.  We have many connections we can utilise to help.  Many of us have professions like hairdressing, nursing, or teaching which we could use to help refugees.

Advocate –  In a world where much in the media is openly hostile to the idea of taking in more refugees, write letters to newspapers, local counsellors and members of parliament advocating for them.  Sign petitions and use social media to keep the issue in peoples’ minds.

The issues of refugees in Europe is not going to go away quickly.  It will change our societies, our understanding of community and the ways in which we go about mission.  Churches have a huge part to play in this transformation and have a wonderful opportunity to be on the cutting edge of change.

On the road to Jericho

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

There is one small but significant word which is often overlooked when reading – and preaching – on the story of the Good Samaritan: ‘down’.  In Luke 10:30 Jesus makes it perfectly clear which way the traveller was going: down.  ‘Down’ is repeated in verse 31 – the priest was going down the road too.

This does not immediately come to the attention of English speakers since we customarily use the expression ‘down the road’ to mean ‘along’.  But in this instance it is topographically specific: ‘down from Jerusalem to Jericho’.  And that road is indeed a downward route, which drops over a kilometre from 754 metres above sea level to 258 feet below.

Yet it is not the topography which is the point being made in the specific use of the word ‘down’, it is the spiritual implications.  Why were the priest, and by inference the Levite too, going down?  At that time, it was common for many of the priests to live in Jericho, with its abundant water supply, warmer climate and good supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, than in Jerusalem.  They would go up and stay in Jerusalem while it was their turn to serve in the temple, and then return home.  So these two had just finished whatever their ministry called for them to do, and were returning to their ‘normal’ life.  They were off duty.

The unspoken criticism of them is that their religious activity had not had any impact on their relationship with their fellow human beings.  They should have had compassion, but it took an outsider who wouldn’t even have gone to the temple to show them how to live with compassion on those less fortunate.  And ‘compassion’, in Biblical usage, does not mean the bland sense of “oh, what a shame” that it conveys in contemporary English, but means “to be gutwrenched”, so eaten up with feeling that we get a physical response to what we see and hear.

This speaks to those of us who find beggars coming to our church premises, or trip over the homeless sleeping under the lych-gate.  If our relationship with God counts for anything, it should be working itself out in our compassion for the needy.

And so it does, in many cases.  Churches are largely the impetus behind food banks in this country.  Many people working for overseas development agencies are Christians.  Many of those agencies have Christian roots.  And many of us give sacrificially to these agencies, making up the lion’s share of emergency donations in the UK.

But we can easily become weary of doing good.  Particularly when it hits closer to home.  How compassionate am I when a homeless person starts sleeping in the lobby of my block of flats?  How much do we care about the plight of Syrian refugees if compassion means Britain letting into our country hundreds of thousands of them like Germany has done, and having to build more homes, schools and hospitals (at taxpayer expense)?  When push comes to shove, our compassion hardens.

Next week, we’ll be looking at some Christian responses to the current refugee crisis, but in the meantime let us remind ourselves of the words of St Paul:

Let us not grow weary of doing good.

(2 Thessalonians 3:13)