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!

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Spring position

It is easy to be negative about Sweden, above all as the long slog of winter grinds on and on and the grey darkness threatens to swallow you up in its melancholic misery. Everything is wrong, everything is tedious, life is just one long drudgery. Then Spring creeps quietly up and suddenly, seemingly overnight, a day like today explodes in such extraordinary beauty that it feels like being in love for the first time, everything is so wonderful and beautiful and nothing is wrong and you can’t stop smiling.

I took the bus home from work today (after a night shift at Lindesberg Hospital) and gazed out at the fields and forest, the birches finally bursting into leaf (they seem greener from one day to the next), the glory of the deep blue sky above me. Arriving at the bus/railway station in central Örebro I saw people sitting in the “Spring position” – leaning backwards against the wall of the bus-shelter, faces upturned to the morning sun, eyes closed, lips unable to conceal a secret smile, spirits laughing somewhere deep down. A sunny Spring-Summer in Sweden must be as close to paradise as one can come on earth.

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

Kåfalla herrgård

Last weekend we had a meeting and conference for the Swedish Christian Medical Fellowship, which has the unlikely initials of KLM – Kristna läkare och medcinstudenter. It was held at a conference centre called Kåfalla Manor some 50 minutes north of Örebro, among the forests and farms east of Lindesberg. The program was packed but when it was all over I had the chance to wander around the lake and through the forest with some friends. Here is the website for Kåfalla (in Swedish). And here are some of my own photos:

Old bridge

Old bridge

Forest walk

Forest walk

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Reflections

Bottoms up

One of the signs of Spring in our corner of the world is the birds. Perhaps most noticeable are the swans and the geese, which we see flying in formation far above, heading north. The unmistakeable cry of the Canada geese, even if not so beautiful, fills our hearts with hope and happiness, because it is a herald of light and warmth. Summer is coming, our hearts lift. Outside our window smaller birds are hopping around on still branches: I just spotted a red breasted domherre on the fence between our house and the neighbors’. I thought fleetingly that I should try to capture it in a picture, but I know it will be long gone before I can get my camera out. But here is a shot from earlier in the Spring, a few weeks back, when the ice had just started to retreat from the brown waters of Svartån, the river that runs through the middle of Örebro. Not a migratory bird but one of our permanent residents, happy to at least get free access to the delights below the surface.