The last holfies postcard from Sweden

I have decided to stop updating this blog, and have started a new blog at My reasoning can be found at that address on the About page. Anyone who might be interested in following my ramblings is welcome to have a look there instead. This “postcards” blog will remain here, but there will be no more posts to this site. 

Thanks for reading.

Islam on the move in Örebro

In town today on a sunny Saturday afternoon we noticed a sprinkling of orange t-shirted, dark haired, olive skinned young men scattered across Våghustorget, one of Örebro’s busiest shopping squares. I was amazed to see on their shirts the words printed boldly, "Fråga mig om Islam" – Ask me about Islam – and then noticed that several of the "orange men" were engaged in earnest conversation with youths who were clearly ethnically Scandinavian. I walked past the tent that was apparently the Muslim base camp and noticed paper sample bags on trestle tables with the words "Converts packet" written across them.

As a believer in Jesus I wondered how to respond, and decided that what I saw was a good thing. We Christians have so often failed to stand publicly and proudly as representatives of Jesus in the marketplace. We have allowed secular governments and outspoken atheists to convince us that faith should be a private matter. We have retreated into our cosy fellowships, worried about offending people, scared that we might "put people off." Our society is becoming aggressively atheistic, increasingly secular, sadly materialistic, losing its connection with the force that made it what it is today, the simple but confronting teaching of Jesus. Western culture and society is tossed on a sea of confusion, set adrift from its Christian foundations, left foundering and wondering what faith really is all about. If the Muslim population of Örebro can contribute to putting faith and spiritual matters back on the public agenda it can only be a good thing.

Despite the changes in our society, thankfully many Swedish Christians have not remained silent, and indeed there is an increasing will among believers to speak out into the spiritual desert we see around us. From our own church here in Örebro believers are resolutely going into the streets to share the good news about Jesus with people they meet. In Stockholm the Jesusmanifestation has become a yearly event, when thousands of believers take to the streets to proclaim the message of Jesus. Christians regularly write to our local paper to present the Christian version of current events from a Biblical perspective. We have begun to realize that in our relationship with the living God we possess a treasure which it is selfish to keep back from the people around us.

The other thing that was encouraging as I reflected on these young Muslim men was the fact that they are presenting their message peacefully. The Western world has become increasingly terrorized by images of radical fundamentalist Islam. It is good to see another side of Islam, not as something to be feared because of the threat of violence, but as something to be considered for its merits. Muslims have started to understand that the Western world will never accept their message if it is presented with force. Such aggressive expansionism will just lead to conflict and hatred. If they want to be heard they must present their faith in a way that appeals to peoples’ hearts and minds, not that instils fear of reprisals.

For my part, Jesus will always have my allegiance. What I know of Islam, what I have seen, will not tempt me to convert, though I have Muslim friends who I respect greatly, and though there is much in Islam which impresses. I suspect that if Muslims could see Jesus with fresh eyes and not through the veil of a thousand years of conflict with Christians then they too would be impressed by what they saw. I suspect that Muslim people would find it hard to ignore this man on whose teaching the Western countries that they are now making their homes has built their political and social structures. I suspect also that if we followers of Jesus could present him as boldly and gladly as these orange men on the streets today were presenting their faith, that multitudes of secular Swedes would also stop and listen to us as they were listening to them. Perhaps next weekend there will be a crowd of Christians in the marketplace alongside the Muslim evangelists, with the words on their t- shirts, "Ask me about Jesus."

Therein lies the fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity. While their faith is about a religion ours is in a man who claims to be alive and who claims to be God.

The results of feeling outside

The week before last there was unrest in Örebro. In two suburbs there were acts of vandalism, primarily cars being set on fire. It happened on successive nights and there were various arrests made. Since then there has been much introspection and handwringing in the local press, and I suppose in the community in general. How could such a thing happen in such a prosperous land as Sweden? The general feeling is that it is all about the growing gap between rich and poor, the feeling of dissatisfaction of some people in the community that they are badly off when others have it all.

Ours was one of the two suburbs affected by the unrest, which was labelled an “upplop” by the press. Upplop can be translated as “riot” which seems to me to be something of an overstatement. The so called riot in Brickebacken amounted to the burning of a number of cars by vandals who rapidly disappeared from the scene. There was no crowd of angry young men shouting and throwing stones and bottles. You could almost wonder if the actions were the result of boredom, rather than anger. The press made a lot of it, but the local inhabitants of Brickebacken were quick to say how safe and secure they feel despite everything.

The paper contributed with an article summarizing the social and economic differences between various suburbs of Örebro. A couple of things stood out. The richest suburb, Adolfsberg, has a disposable income per household of more than 3 times that of the poorest suburbs. It also has more than twice the number of people with a tertiary education, and half the proportion unemployed. Needless to say, only 9% of those living in Adolfsberg has a foreign background, compared with 77% of Vivalla, which is one of the poorest suburbs.

Brickebacken, where we live, is not the poorest suburb though the average household income is still less than half of that in Adolfsberg. It is however, one of the most immigrant dominated areas, with some 53% coming from outside Sweden. Vivalla and Brickebacken were the two suburbs of Örebro affected by the so called riots.

Local politicians were asked for their opinions about the causes of the unrest, and their suggestions of solutions. The general consensus seems to be that the underlying problem is “utanförskap” – literally translated as “outsidership”. The perpetrators, like many in the community, feel outside. The solution, therefore, is to reduce this feeling of being outside. How to do that? Various ideas have been floated, but the general consensus is that educational opportunities need to be improved, free time activities need to be provided, especially for youth, and unemployment needs to be reduced, to give people more income, and to give them something to do with their time.

I read another editorial the other day which commented on Sweden as being, according to an international survey, one of the happiest nations in the world, with only a couple of other nations ahead of it (one of which was Australia!). The article wondered what happiness really is. Interestingly, I am fairly sure that the rich-poor divide in Australia is significantly greater than in socialist Sweden, even if according to the survey Australians as a group have it better than Swedes. I also remember seeing a documentary a few years ago about poverty in the UK, where the richest people earn up to 300 times the poorest, so a threefold difference in Örebro seems fairly trivial.

There is no doubt that a huge gap between rich and poor creates resentment and envy, a feeling of injustice. The revolutions of the last two hundred years bear witness to that. Neither is there any doubt in my mind that feeling like an outsider leads to discontent and depression. We all desire to “belong” and we all want a meaningful existence, where we do something worthwhile and where we are rewarded for our efforts. There are too many people who have neither a sense of purpose or belonging in our society. Helping people to gain that must surely be one of the major tasks of our times.

Vision of a new world

Its been a busy weekend in Sweden. Its Spring, so there is a buzzing in the air. Its Pentecost, which escapes the notice of a large part of the world, but which has deep meaning for us who follow Jesus, as the day when the Holy Spirit was “poured out” on believers after Jesus’ death and resurrection, making possible the continuing work of God in the world through his people. Yesterday there was a “Jesusmanifestation” in Stockholm, which has become an annual event the last 5 years or so, when Christians of all persuasions take to the streets to celebrate their identity as believers. This is particularly significant in Sweden where faith is seen as something private, not to be displayed to the world; the Jesusmanifestation gives Christians a chance to do something rather countercultural, to acknowledge with pride the one they believe in.

But most Swedes think little about Pentecost; they recognize the word, “Pingst” in Swedish, since it is a holiday, but its meaning is lost on them. For most Swedes yesterday the focus of their attention was not the coming of the Holy Spirit but the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which is celebrated in Sweden with religious fervor. Along with the majority of the Swedish population we gathered around the TV set last night so see this musical extravaganza, which I have to admit I enjoyed more than I have in years.

The winner was Denmark, with a fairly meaningless song sung by a very cute girl called Emelie. France had opened the evening with a particularly dark song about hell, which did not exactly set the tone for the celebration of friendliness that followed, but thankfully things got better (for the most part). My favorite tune was from Malta with a silly song about someone called Jeremy, sung by a young doctor who made me happy by his smile. Russia chimed in with a catchy song (written by a Swede) about unity and reaching out to the needy, catching the theme of Eurovision since its inception 57 years ago as a musical contribution to peace, so longed for after some 30 years of Europeans killing each other in two world wars.

It is easy to be critical of events like Eurovision. We Christians are famous for picking on such celebrations as godless tributes to the empty promises of humanism. Indeed, some even see in Eurovision something sinister, vaguely evil, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Similar criticisms have even been made of the European Union itself, which was also conceived as a means to prevent the tragedy of European conflict which had so horrified the world over the previous decades. Indeed there are aspects of Eurovision that are worrying for us believers, but I think our anxiety is misplaced.

God is never silent. He speaks into every situation and I found myself listening in last night’s performance for what he was saying. I remember a friend in Mercy Ships who always used to speak about how God “hijacks” situations, taking over with his agenda even when other plans have been made. I wondered if he would hijack the Eurovision song contest. It came, I believe, with the English contribution, though Bonnie Tyler was a long way from winning the competition with her song, Believe in me. But listen to the words. If this is not Jesus challenging the world then what is?

What ya gonna do when your ship is sinking?
And you’re crying out for help and just the seagulls listening
In the dark of the night, in the middle of the fight
When you’re reaching out for something and there’s nothing

Believe in me, yeah
Believe in the way I look at you and stand beside you
The way I speak the truth, I’d never lie to you
If you’d just believe in the things that your eyes can’t see

I read this morning the vision for the world of an ancient prophet of Israel, his name, Joel:

Our God, be kind and bless us! Be pleased and smile. Then everyone on earth will learn to follow you, and all nations will see your power to save us. Make everyone praise you and shout your praises. Let the nations celebrate with joyful songs, because you judge fairly and guide all nations. Make everyone praise you and shout your praises. Our God has blessed the earth with a wonderful harvest! Pray for his blessings to continue and for everyone on earth to worship our God. (Joel 3:1-7)

It could almost be a Eurovision song!