Blessed are the Persecuted…

The Beatitudes are hard. I’ve always thought so. That part of the Bible, recorded in both Matthew and Luke, where Jesus counts off the laundry list of human suffering and tells us they are blessed. Blessed. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot in Christian circles and I’m pretty sure most of us are using it wrong, but that’s another topic perhaps for another post another time. In fact, a lot of what we in western Christianity tend to label “blessings” are included in the follow up list of “woes” that Luke lists right afterward, but again I digress.

you keep using that word

What do I know of persecution? I have lived my whole life in the United States and Europe, where my race is the majority race and my faith is the majority faith. I have citizenship in two countries, both of which allow me the right to vote to choose our leaders. What do I know of poverty? We live in a warm, safe apartment. We have so many clothes and shoes that it takes time to choose what to wear everyday. I stand in a kitchen full of food and decide what to make for dinner each day. If my kids are barefoot, it’s by choice, and I’ve never been forced to tuck them into bed with empty bellies. So maybe that’s why the Beatitudes are so difficult for me to understand. They are promises of comfort to people suffering experiences I’ve never had.

If it stopped at “blessed are you…” I think I would be okay. I could adjust my definition of blessing and feel comfort that these images of brokenness and suffering on my screen are not the end of the story. I can feel compassion for their pain in the present, but know that someday it will be made right. Someday.

But it doesn’t stop there. It says “Rejoice and be glad…” What? That’s asking a little much, isn’t it? I don’t understand this connection between suffering and joy. I don’t understand it, but I’ve seen it.

We recently spent a few days with a community of refugees and asylum seekers. I prepared myself to witness their poverty, and to hear their stories of suffering, hardship and persecution. What I wasn’t prepared for is that, just an hour’s drive from where I’m living my life of abundance, there is a community of people living with abundant life. I had not prepared myself to experience joy, love, service and generosity.

“In Syria, I sold and repaired motorcycles. And I was a barber.” He explains to us in Arabic, translated by his 13-year-old son into broken Swedish. “We had 3 tractors to farm our land.” We understand this with the help of a toy tractor that Peter is playing with on the floor. He tries to explain something else, but we can’t get it through the language barrier. He held an important position in his community, perhaps a magistrate or a judge? We are sitting in the living room of their small apartment, a room that is also the bedroom of three of the seven in this family. I ask about his family. They are all still in Syria, with the exception of two brothers in Lebanon. He fears for their safety and wishes he could help them escape. “My mother’s mother and father,” explains the 10-year-old girl sitting next to me, “they…” and she makes a gun with her fingers, puts it to her head, and pulls the thumb-trigger.

They ask us to stay for lunch, and the preparations take more than 2 hours. Neighbors come to join us and bring food. The small room is over 30ºC (approaching 90ºF) and I am nearly overwhelmed by the sounds of different languages, laughter, and the sound of children playing. In the background, the television is showing an old classic Pippi Longstocking movie, which seems oddly Swedish and ordinary as I struggle to find words that I understand in the chaotic mixture of Arabic, English, Swedish and a Syrian dialect. The kitchen table is moved to the living room and we gather around the kitchen table and coffee table, sitting on whatever beds, sofas, and chairs are available. The table is covered with food and we can barely find room to put our bowls down. And there is joy. We are working hard to understand each other, but there is no frustration. We make the effort because people are worth the effort. Their past experiences in Syria, or Iraq in the case of the neighbors who have joined us, are not mentioned. Today they are safe. Today they have food on the table and friends around the table and they know that God is good. They know it more deeply and truly than I know it, and it is the source of their joy. And even if it was all taken away from them tomorrow, they still know that God is faithful. They know it, because it wouldn’t be the first time they lost everything and started over.

We go to church. We sit and I see the full spectrum of colors that skin can be. I hear voices raised loud and strong, joyful though sometimes very, very off-key. And it doesn’t matter. I hear a sermon preached in Tigrinya and English and Swedish. He speaks of his daily fervent prayers that he would not forget God, as the Israelites did, now that he has come to a land of milk and honey. I am moved to my core. There are refreshments after the service. Beyond coffee and tea, I recognize nothing but taste everything. My kids ask to sit with their new friends, and I watch my daughter sit between a girl who only speaks Swedish and one who speaks little Swedish but knows English and she helps them understand each other. There are so many volunteers to help serve and clean up that they don’t all fit in the kitchen.

We leave church as a group. The parking lot is virtually empty of cars, and we are all walking together down the street. One at a time, smaller clusters split off and head for their homes amid waves and calling after one another. I feel I have somehow been transported to another time and another place. Soon we are the cluster waved off. We’ve been staying in our camper but now it’s time to pack it up and head for home. We leave amid promises to return next weekend, to visit another family that wants to cook for us and introduce us to the food of their culture, and to worship with them again.

I have struggled all week to write this post, wondering which revision I will eventually publish and if I’ll ever be satisfied with the final result. I hope to write more soon about what I’m taking away from all of these experiences, about what we learned and tried and tasted, and about the impact I see in our kids. Today it must suffice to try to paint the picture, to try to put words to what our senses have taken in. I don’t know how to tell the stories of my new friends in a way that is true to who they are. They are not wallowing, seeking pity, or asking for anything from us. I don’t want to paint us as some kind of benefactors, ministering to the poor and downtrodden, for we are the ones who have walked away richer. I don’t want to contribute to what some have so accurately if somewhat indelicately labeled “poverty porn.” They are poor by many standards but so very rich in what matters most. Blessed they are indeed, and I’m thankful that they are teaching me to rejoice and be glad.

Lunch In Jörn

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