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.

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!

Fighting injustice in medieval Sweden

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Örebro is in an area of central Sweden called Bergslagen, which was particularly important in medieval times because of the rich deposits of iron, copper and other minerals. The mines are largely derelict now, lost to time, but in the 1400s they were an important part of the Swedish economy. The miners were, of course, poor. The mine owners were wealthy. As well as being an important commodity for local production iron was an important export providing income for the wealthy mine owners through sales and for the nobility through taxes. For the poor it provided employment and meagre wages to support their families.

The king in the 1430s was a certain Erik of Pomerania. Like many of the royalty of Sweden in those times he did not even live in Sweden, but in Denmark. Having said that, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland were joined as the so called Kalmar Union at that time, much as Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are now joined in the United Kingdom. Erik ruled over all. He spent much of his time, and lots of money, fighting wars with neighboring Germany. These wars were financed by taxes collected largely from the meagre earnings of the miners and farmers of Scandinavia who had little or no interest in the king’s foreign adventures.

Nobles were appointed by the king to collect the taxes. Many were unscrupulous, even downright brutal in their execution of this privilege. One who was particularly hated for his cruelty and inhumanity was the sheriff of Västerås. He was known for his practice of punishing tax offenders by hanging them in smokehouses to suffocate them. Their wives would be forced to drag wagons piled high with hay through the streets. Pregnant women were not exempt, and contemporary writings record the premature labour and stillbirths that resulted.

The poor had, however, little power or opportunity to react to this injustice. Like the poor of all ages they tended to accept their lot, paralyzed by a fatalistic sense of impotence. They were angry certainly, but they lacked military training or resources, and most importantly, organization and leadership. Into this vacuum, however, stepped a man called Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson. He was a mine owner from the small mining community of Norberg, north of Västerås. His wealth and power made him in many ways closer to the nobility than to the workers and farmers. But in one important way he was completely different: he did not see the men and women of the communities around him as a faceless source of income for personal enrichment, but rather as people with their own intrinsic value. Hearing them, and seeing their suffering, and recognizing the injustice and cruelty of the nobility of the land, he decided to stand with the poor, rather than the wealthy and influential. He was a man of compassion and mercy. He was also a charismatic speaker and a leader.

The Engelbrekt uprising that resulted is a central event in Swedish history. It is the story of a fight against injustice, a fight that succeeded in a way that no rebellion of the common man had ever done so in Sweden’s past history. Sadly, Engelbrekt came to a tragic end, murdered by a fellow noble who had a grudge against him. He was only around 40 when he died. But he has lived on in the consciousness of Sweden as a figure symbolizing the strength of the ordinary people united against injustice. Within a few years of his death he was canonized and stories started to circulate about miracles happening to pilgrims visiting his grave. The Reformation put an end to his recognition as a saint, but he became instead a folk hero, and lives on even now in the minds of modern Sweden as a leader of the people.

Örebro is rich in memories of Engelbrekt, for Örebro Castle was his home for a short time after his military successes and before his violent death. In the town square there is a statue of Engelbrekt, erected in the 1800s, although it is an imagined likeness since no contemporary images of Engelbrekt exist. His name is seen on street signs and there is even an Engelbrekt school.

I am inspired by this man because of his willingness to follow what I understand to be the values and principles of Jesus. Despite his wealth and privilege, Engelbrekt threw in his lot with the poor. He was committed to justice and mercy. He stood against the evil he saw around him. His methods, it is true, were violent – armed rebellion – which is not the way of Jesus. But Engelbrekt lived in violent times, and perhaps knew of no other way to right the wrongs he saw around him. How much he understood the Bible and the mind of God we cannot know. Indeed, few people read the Bible in those days; it was not available in the language of the people. People were dependent on the biblical interpretation of churchmen who were educated in Latin. Who knows what they said.

We cannot know what Engelbrekt thought. We have no record of what he spoke to the miners and farmers who rallied around him. But we know what he did, and we know how he was remembered. And that tells me that he was a follower of Jesus, knowingly or not.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18, 19

Creating something new

There is a blustery uneasiness about this new year. As midnight approached last night the weather behaved oddly. After two months of subzero temperatures, with snow falls producing a beautiful, if chilly winter, the temperature rose unexplainably yesterday from minus 7 to plus 3, a strangely warm wind blew in from the south, and rain squalls swept across the county. In a few hours the squeaky, fluffy snow of recent weeks began to transform to the slush that usually appears in early spring, around mid March. This morning, with gusty winds still buffeting the neighbourhood, the trees, which yesterday morning were laden with snow, have been washed clean, losing their winter magic, taking on instead a drab tiredness which reflects my mood as I enter the new year.

Meanwhile a leading article on the BBC website speaks of flooding of “biblical proportions” in Queensland, Australia, a subject which barely rates a mention on the Sydney Morning Herald website, which is much too preoccupied with more important issues like football, cricket and political scandals. Its a new year, and life goes on as usual, the newspapers reflecting the preoccupations and neuroses of our current generation, as we humans struggle to relate to each other, to take care of (or exploit) the world we have been given, and to comprehend and understand what we see going on around us.

In my email inbox is a Bible reading from Isaiah 43: “Forget what happened long ago! Don’t think about the past. I am creating something new. There it is! Do you see it?” God speaks to his people, the Israelites, through his prophet, Isaiah. I find myself wondering what new thing God is doing. The passage goes on to describe God’s sadness and pain at the failure of his chosen people to take any notice of him, despite all the efforts he has gone to on their behalf. I am reminded how easy it is to forget God, even for those of us who are believers, how easy it is to take Him for granted. I realize how many things distract me from the Creator. How little of my time or devotion He receives.

He says then, “But I wipe away your sins because of who I am. And so, I will forget the wrongs you have done.” God gives me, and us, a second chance, an opportunity to live differently. But what does it mean, to give God first place in my life, to let His words and thoughts and values guide my life and decisions instead of my own desires and fears and self-obsession?

The windy change of the night has not just blown away the snow from tree branches, but even the dark clouds that spat rain from the night sky as we shot off our rockets at midnight to welcome in the new year. The sky is bright blue today, and the clouds are high and wispy. The temperature has slipped again below zero, and Spring is once again pushed away from our minds as winter reasserts its grip. But I have had a reminder that change is coming, that God is a Creator who has not stopped His involvement in my life, or the life of this world, whatever this world’s scientific rationalism might say to the contrary.

“I am creating something new. There it is! Do you see it?”

In the footsteps of Lisbeth Salander

Its always fun to see references to Sweden in the Sydney Morning Herald, so I was pleased to see this article today. I’ve always thought the English title of the book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a bad representation of the books real title, Män som hatar kvinnor, which literally translated means “men who hate women”. Lisbeth Salander is arguably the most interesting character of the book, but the book is not just about her. She is only one of the two main characters, the other being the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who really seems to be more central to the narrative than Salander. The theme of the book really is much better indicated by the real title, and it is clear that this subject – the abuse of women by evil men – is one that Stieg Larsson, the author, was fascinated and horrified by. That horror is clearly conveyed in his book.

Lisbeth Salander, or Sally, as Blomkvist calls her, is a fascinating character, but in the end I found her unbelievable. She is depicted as a person who has been through incredible psychological suffering and deprivation, but she is super intelligent, athletic, sexy, endearing, even lovable, and despite her apparent hardness gets hurt. The combination of virtues and vulnerabilty in a person so severely abused seems unlikely.

But then, writers are allowed to invent people to get their message across, just as they can invent towns like Hedestad, which doesn’t exist. I did think the Herald article was a bit misleading in indicating the supposed location of Hedestad as on the Swedish coast north of Stockholm. Certainly the book indicates that it is north of Stockholm, but it also says it is in Norrland, which is nowhere in the vicinity of the capital, but around 500km away at its southern edge. But here even the Swedish version of the book is confusing, since it indicates that Hedestad is only three hours train ride from Stockholm, and that puts you an hour north of Gävle, which I would not have thought of as Norrland.

But then what would I know. I am not much more Swedish than the Herald’s travel writer.