I was grabbed recently by something in a piece of literature put through my front door. Unusual, I know. It was a prayer diary for the Middle East. In it I found a prayer for government officials to return to displaced peoples equality, dignity and responsibility. Lack of these things, or violent suppression thereof, in many countries is the very reason many refugees are fleeing in their droves. And it really got me thinking.
We have a lot of refugees in our church. In fact sometimes at our Sunday morning services there are so many languages that at times, if someone prays out loud, we don’t know which are earthly and which ones spiritual. We joke about having a problem interpreting in a biblical 1 Corinthians 14 fashion.
But on a serious note, I’ve personally heard some of these people’s stories. One young Iranian, my own age, traced for me across a world map his arduous journey to the safety of the UK. As his finger glided over the countries he’d covertly passed through, the fear, hopelessness he described and loss of friends to the dangerous crossings of rapid rivers caused an intense gravity to fall over those listening. Standing next to him my friend wept silently.
On other occasions I’ve had the privilege of socialising and attending Bible studies with the warmest, most emotive people I have ever met. My deeply fun-loving friends recently coerced me into attempting some Persian dancing in my living room to the incredulity of my neighbours. Embarrassingly, I’d left my blinds wide open. Alongside overcoming my innate English awkwardness I’ve crossed other cultural barriers to make friends, learning some beginner’s Farsi, but it’s nowhere near comparable to what these folk face in coming to us. A drop in the ocean against the loss of homes, family, security, safety, acceptance or changes in culture and religion they’ve known.
Such suffering deeply struck me as we read and tackled some of Jesus’ hardest sayings about hating family and life itself, in comparison to our love for him, at one Bible study. I realised that I have never understood these passages. I won’t even pretend now. I’ve never suffered in a way that makes them meaningful. And in light of their stories, even spiritualising them seems a farce.
I could only learn from them, as they spoke of having to leave mothers and brothers behind for the Gospel. They did understand the passage; they have experienced it; they are counted as dead to their families for their faith. I believe Jesus spoke such verses knowing it would be so.
I had been asked to come to help support running the study, but left having learnt more than I could ever give. Yet, as the general babble and voices vying for attention rapidly silenced when I once spoke to make a contribution, I felt acutely aware of an odd underlying privilege I held. Attentive listeners turned to me as if I had some definitive answers. For the sense was still that this was our study for them. Not that these incredibly valuable studies are wrong, by no means. But I felt ashamed that we western Christians (or western expressions of Christianity) can hold so much sway upon assimilating new believers into our churches, our cultures with our knowledge sets. We have but one puzzle piece of the global picture.
Thankfully the centuries-old paradigm of mission has been changing from a ‘west to the rest’ approach to an ‘everywhere to everywhere’ approach. Globalisation is a big catalyst. But has the church caught on? That we need to be a place where people from every culture receive equality, dignity, and responsibility. Has it ever struck you that you can’t have equality without shared responsibility?
I’m longing for the day these men and women become our leaders. Not as a token gesture, not some sort of a filling a multi-cultural leadership quota; but a genuine from-the-heart relinquishing of rights over the dominance of our own ways-of-doing and understandings.
— World Prayer News (@worldprayernews) November 2, 2016
We cannot presume that we are already good at giving these. One young man in our congregation recently spoke up to challenge our repeated referencing to people groups by their nationality as if they were some separate entity and not committed members of church just like the rest of us. He’s right. There should be no distinction in the body of Christ. But we retain many unspoken norms of differentiation.
I implore you to think with me how we can raise people up to equal positions of dignity and responsibility in word and deed.
May we radically – like our saviour – give up our automatic rights (assumed norms, cultural status quo) just like God gave his up and entered our culture. Could we be humble enough to be taught? To not always assume an attractional (come to us) or ‘be taught by us’ approach. But instead like Jesus live and speak in a language and culture others can understand and relate to. How can we practically do that for those among us? Let us choose to show love in ways others will understand it. Because, as Tim Chester says, we can be ‘so immersed in our own culture that we don’t see it, let alone its defects’ .
 Tim Chester, ‘Mission matters’, Inter-Varsity Press, (2015), p,126.
 Tim Chester, ‘Mission matters’, Inter-Varsity Press, (2015), p,125.