Lips Sewn Shut in a World of Fence Builders

Photo Credit: CNN
From CNN: In one of the most extreme protests since the start of the refuee crisis, about 10 men trapped on the Greek-Macedonian border have sewn their lips shut to silently oppose being blocked from continuing further into Europe.

What I'm saying is, people will move. You can't stop that.

It's a divine thing on the one hand.  God is the first first mover of peoples. His original "fill the earth" command (Gen. 1:28), was very clear.  And a simple look back at the world through the lens of Acts 17:26 to see that it is God who determines the times and places where people should live should be enough to convince us that He is not interested in a static world of the permenanent ethnic enclaves. God is interested in filling the world with his image bearers and to do this so that people can reach out for him and find him.  More on that another time.

And then there is evil and sin and the Enemy and all which keeps arising which pushes people away from their homes -- the war and the killings and the disease and the poverty and the genocide and the environmental disasters and so much more.

There is no stopping it.

You can put up walls and fences.  They will only exacerbate the problems.

In a world of ever-accelerating people movement, the one who builds the highways will prove very wise.  The one who builds the walls, history and the Kingdom will prove to be foolish and cruel.

What is meant by highways? Channels (implications for legal, physical, economic, technological infastructures) of preferred movement which governments create and organizations and businesses support and leverage.  But such highways are never built by those who are in love with the status quo and protecting what they have -- those who are unwilling to adventure and risk for the chance of a better world.  Those who see migrants burgeoning at the borders as sub-human takers and threats can see no good in opening the gates.  But if you have eyes to see the throngs as bearers of the image of God, each one laden with more intrinsic beauty and value than the entire Rocky Mountains -- if you can see that, you will run to lay asphalt for a new and glorious highway.

Oh build the highways!

I want to run to the man in the photo above and cry out to him.  Why are you shutting your mouth? Some have said they don't want to hear what you have to say.  Such do not speak for me.  Let me hear your story.  Let me hear your wisdom.  Let me learn from you about how to be strong and wise and resilient.  Let me cut those threads!  I want to hear your voice.


Challenging Extremism: The Conversation that Needs to Happen

You know what's funny?

My very strongly pro-immigration views and constant challenges to radical hospitality have earned me the reputation of being some kind of Islamic-sympathizer with flimsy theological positions about the nature of God.

It's funny and sad, but I get it. It is far easier to just sign up for someone else's pre-packaged ideology than to wade into the nuance and grayscale of real life and mission and the Kingdom.  Let me ask you, when Christ commanded us to love our enemies and Scripture fleshed it out with talk of turning the other cheek and giving them our cloak and feeding them -- what exactly do you think that looks like?  What exactly do you think it means to have an enemy?  It's more than just a fued with your neighbor about lawn care.

So, a friend of mine sent me this video put together by Muslims calling for an honest conversation about "Radical Islam".  Now, I know almost nothing else about the group that produced this, but, I can tell you that it is well-crafted, well-reasoned and compelling.  And I agree exactly with the conclusion -- we need to be able to have an honest conversation about this. I agree that political correctness can hinder good communication (but I also believe that it is extremely valuable for good communication). Sadly, an honest conversation will never happen during an election year.

I don't take it further to conclude -- as some surely would after viewing this video -- that we need to block Muslim immigrants.  First of all, and this is a subject to consider at length at a later time, anyone who thinks they can effectively restrain the tides of human migration in our day are fooling themselves.  People are on the move and will keep moving.  Shaping and guiding and leveraging that movement is the key.  Recall those viral YouTube videos of Black Friday stampedes at Walmart -- you know how people are. Pressure keeps building and eventually breaks through.  Highway strategies can prove very effective.  Blockades are almost always disasterous.

I have a friend -- perhaps a former friend now because of our radically divergent views on this -- who insists that my head is in the sand when it comes to Muslims.  But, I've actually been threatened with violence, lived with Islamist neighbors who knew we were missionaries, and on one occasion had to wear a disguise because of threats against a public event I was helping lead.  I know that there are Muslims who would enjoy killing me (and I also know I am am small potatoes).  I know there are some in my country and city.  I don't want them to do so.  But you know, it  doesn't change the fact that when I see a Muslim family around, I am drawn to them -- I want to have a conversation and get to know them.  I feel love for them.  If they move in next door, I rejoice greatly.

But I digress ... I do that a lot.  Here is the video I mentioned.  It is worth your time to watch:


Dumb Okies Like Me: A New Relfection on America's Greatest Migration

Image Credit: USDA
Today, a historical reflection followed by three principles and three prayers.

The "Dust Bowl" environmental conditions of the 1930s -- a period of extreme and prolonged drought and dust storms affecting especially Great Plains states like Oklahoma -- resulted in the displacement of 3.5 million Americans.  This represented the largest internal migration event in the history of the United States.  

As Oklahoma families struggled to survive in the "dirty thirties", word gradually began to spread about a better land far away.  Consider:

California! California! California! To the Okies the word "California" was magical, describing a place where they could go to better their lives. It was said that thousands of workers were needed to harvest a hundred different crops -- peaches, pears, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, apples, oranges -- the list seemed endless. It was said that no one ever went hungry in California because lush orchards were everywhere and people just helped themselves to whatever fruits or vegetables they wanted. It was said that no one ever got sick out there, ever, and it was big news if anyone died in California before their 200th birthday!  -- Jerry Stanley, Children of the Dust Bowl

Of course, the dark reality was that these promises of paradise were empty and migrant families reached California only to find exploitation, hostility, violence, and hatred towards "dumb Okies".  

As I consider again this part of my home state's history -- I don't think I've given it much thought since high school -- I do so with a mind towards modern displacement stories:

1. Displacement happens for all kinds of reasons and there is really no people group or part of the world that is immune. The number of Syrians that have fled their homeland now far exceeds the total number displaced by the Dust Bowl.  As of writing this, the UNHCR has the total at above 4.3 million.  When in the West we hear of displacement events we tend to think of it as a developing world issue.  But, the Dust Bowl was only a few generations ago and included people that were a lot like me -- maybe even some relatives.  Smaller displacements happen all the time.  It is very foolish to think of displacement as something that could never happen to me.  There is an old Dust Bowl tale of a California child who observed some migrants picking cotton in a field and commented to his father, the owner of the field, "Daddy, those Okies almost look like real people when they stand up on two legs."  Dear God, help me to see myself in the face of every refugee I meet -- we really are the same, whether I see it or not.

2. The promise of a better life somewhere else is still proclaimed wherever people are vulnerable.  I have seen so many examples of this.  I knew of Rohingyas that were migrating en masse to a certain Midwestern city because of the promise of jobs only to find the celebrated factory closed upon their arrival.  I've heard Bhutanese friends tell of the great opportunities in Buffalo and then Oakland and then Pittsburg and now Columbus.  I've heard women tell heartbreaking stories of moving from the village to Kampala because of the promise of a job or a place to stay with relatives only to be exploited and forced into sex work.  I have Nepali friends in Dubai who moved there because of the grand promises of job recruiters only to find themselves in oppressive debt to those same recruiters upon arrival.  Sometimes these promises of greener pastures are told by well-meaning relatives who simply long to reunite the family and will bend the truth in order to accomplish that.  Other times there is intentional and malicious deception spread by oppressors who want to exploit and enslave the vulnerable.  The mission of managing expectations and protecting migrants from exploitation is holy, thankless and difficult.  I have not sorted out how to do it well, but I pray that while mine is just one of many voices my migrant friends will hear, let it at least be truthful.

3.  Too often the world's pilgrims find no welcome.  I can begin to imagine now the feelings of my Okie ancestors who encountered "Okies Keep Out" signs posted seemingly everywhere upon completion of the arduous weeks or months-long journey across Route 66.  Now every, single day my newsfeed has several stories of similar unwelcome.  It may be a presidential candidate in the USA pandering to some rather racist group by spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric or any number of horrific stories of hostility towards refugees in Europe.  It seems like every day I see a new image of refugees crowded at some fence line in Europe.  Meanwhile, I celebrate the nation of Uganda which is currently hosting greater than half a million refugees!  On a recent trip I found myself waiting for my flight at the gate in Dubai.  Glancing around the seating area I noticed that many people where holding the distinctive white and blue plastic bags emblazoned with the letters "IOM".  These were refugees!  I decided to make my way around the room to greet them.  I sat down with one husband and wife from Afghanistan who were on their way to Texas.  We talked for a while and before departing I felt the need to tell them the truth.  "Not everyone will be happy for you to come to America," I said.  "But I am happy.  I welcome you.  I am very glad you are coming to live in my country."  Feeling a heart of welcome to refugees and immigrants is grace.  It must be grace because I have some really awful sin in other parts of my life.  So, since it is grace, I give thanks for it and ask God to increase my welcome and my hospitality.  How can I go to greater lengths to welcome the sojourner?  Lord show me. 


We Know the Shrine is Void: Sacralizing the Status Quo

I had a friend that once was going in a different direction -- a radical one.  The life they were pursuing was selfless and Kingdom-oriented and hard and unpopular.  Their family and many normal people opposed them.  Then, something happened and they changed course.  Recently, I was talking with this friend and listening to their description of their job and life.  They felt happy, content.  The job was easy and they had friends.  Their family life was good.  They had just bought things like a car and a house.  They had cute little children running around.  We didn't talk about the past -- about what they once said they wanted to be and do.  As I listened I felt discouraged as I realized that I had nothing at all to say that could "tempt" them back to the radical path.  If comfort and contentment are what you want and the Kingdom is no longer interesting to you, I simply don't know how to compete.

And then I think about how the Church basically celebrates this kind of life anyway -- sacralizes it through media and books and bad movies and ridiculous Christian book stores and endless pats on the back and retweets of all the right things.

Years ago I stood in a field in Memphis and heard preacher-types tell a bunch of young people (I was one of them) to go and be martyrs for the sake of the Lord Jesus.  They didn't tell us not to take them too seriously -- which, I think, in retrospect is what they might have meant.  I did take them seriously and its a bit too late to turn back now.  I have often felt like Peter in John 6 after the Jesus had alienated thousands of people with a really weird sermon that seemed to be about canabalism -- "Where are we going to go, Jesus?" 

I read somewhere recently the phrase "sacralizers of the status quo".  I don't recall from where I read it, but it stuck.  I've been mulling it over and find it almost haunting me.  Then, I turned to Kipling (which I do sometimes when I can't sleep) and read this:

L'Envoi (Departmental Ditties)

The smoke upon your Altar dies,
    The flowers decay,
The Goddess of your sacrifice
     Has flown away.
What profit then to sing or slay
The sacrifice from day to day.

"We know the Shrine is void," they said,
     "The Goddess flown --
"Yet wreaths are on the altar laid --
     "The Altar-Stone
"Is black with fumes of sacrifice,
"Albeit She has fled our eyes.

"For it may be, if still we sing
     "And tend the Shrine,
"Some Deity on wandering wing
     "May there incline;
"And, finding all in order meet,
"Stay while we worship at Her feet."

I know the scene of Kipling's poem both in the literal and metaphorical sense -- as did he.  There is little difference between the two in terms of their danger and appeal.  Keeping up the cult of an absconded deity is much easier than going after the Living One.  Keeping up the vanity of the status quo is much easier than trying to change the world -- and nearly everyone else knows it!  And once someone or many people have decided upon the status quo as the preferred thing -- and then developed a means for sacralizing it through innoculizing spurts of activism, religious sentiment, and first world theologizing -- well, it is very difficult to drag someone away from that Altar.  Very difficult indeed.


An Open Letter to Syrian Refugees

Photo credit: Borderless 2015
Dear friend,

I originally wrote this "open letter" two years ago as the refugee camps were filling and Western nations were beginning to consider resettlement.  Now in the United States,  in the wake of recent terroist attacks, there are many who are afraid of you and political candidates score cheap points by promising to block your access to my country.  Still, our president has promised to open our borders to thousands of you and that process has already begun.  

I recognize that the odds of you reading this are not good.  Many of you are tightly packed in refugee camps that are ill-equipped to provide you with adequate food, water, medicine, housing, and more.  Others of you are somewhere along the refugee highway between Syria and Europe or even already resettled in a Western nation.  Still, you are on my heart today and I wish to say something to you.  And, insha'Allah (God willing), this message might reach one or two of you.  My message is simple:

I am a citizen of the United States of America and i welcome you here.

Today, I am praying that President Obama's plans to thousands of you in our nation will succeed.  I want you to come.  I am deeply saddened by what you have had to endure and by the conditions that you are even now enduring.  I am not considered rich by my country's standards.  But, I have so much compared to you and I am willing to share.

I am willing to share my money, my time, my nation, and my life with you.  And, if the Lord opens the door for you to come as refugees to my country I promise to do everything in my power to welcome you. I want to greet you at the airport, take you grocercy shopping or to medical visits.  I want to help you learn English (though you probably already speak it fluently) and I want you to teach me your language and culture.  I want to spend time with you as a friend and invite you to my home. I will listen to your stories if you are willing to tell them to me.  Not only this, but I will mobilize and equip as many people as I can to do the same.

Some of you will be concerned that I will try to convert you to Christianity. I should say first that I would never put it in those terms.  But, let me be as honest as possible.  The Lord Jesus (Isa al-Masih), has changed my life and has given me an overabundance of love, peace, and hope. It is impossible to keep this to myself.  I've not had to suffer like you.  But, when I have suffered, he has been a constant presence and help.  He has always saved me.  So, I will certainly pray for you in His name.  And I will tell you about His life.  And, if you desire to follow Him, I will teach you what I know about how to do that.  But, even if you don't. I will still love you and serve you with all my heart.  Indeed, I must do this because the love of the Lord Jesus compels me.  When I teach you English or pick you up at the airport or take you shopping or eat a meal in your home -- this will all be because of His love.

I cannot promise that every American will welcome you in this way.  Many will not.  Some will even be afraid of you.  But, I will not be.  I want you to come!

We have a famous statue in our country called "The Statue of Liberty".  You may have seen a picture at some point.  On the statue is an inscription which reads as follows:

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

This is the heart of our country and also the heart of the Lord Jesus.  It has become my heart as well.  I hope you will come.  I hope America can become your home and I hope you will become my neighbors and friends, my brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunties.  

Blessings and peace to you,



Standing in Solidarity: Considering the Case of Larycia Hawkins

Photos of Larycia Hawkins wearing her headscarf via Facebook

News headlines today in Chicagoland are featuring my own beloved Wheaton College and their decision to suspend (or place on "administrative leave") one of the their professors who made some controversial theological statements in a recent public announcement that she would wear a hijab during advent in solidarity with Muslim women.  Here is the story as reported in the Chicagoist today.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me remind you that I am a graduate of Wheaton but I don't know Dr. Larycia Hawkins and have never met her.  Her original Facebook post that has generated so much controversy can be read here.  Let me make a few observations:

1. Standing in solidarity is good -- Hawkins cites a popular YouTube video, "Women Wear Hijabs for a Day," in the comments of her post suggesting that the video played a role in inspiring her decision to wear a hijab during Advent.  Take a look:

I have nothing but respect for the desire to stand in solidarity with Muslim women in this way.  My wife and both former and current teammates of mine have done so on multiple occasions.  I, myself, have had similar experiences in what may be called "cross-cultural dressing" and can testify that it can be done in a way that is respectful, appreciated by the "other", and enlightening.  Given the fact that Christ himself engaged in a kind of cross-cultural dressing (enfleshening) in his Incarnation, Advent seems to be an especially appropriate time for something like this.

2. The time is right for Christ followers to stand in solidarity with Muslims -- I don't need to remind you that we are living in a time when hatred toward Muslims is en vogue.  From the typically leftist Rob Lowe:
To the famous Trump vow to block all Muslims from entering the United States, it has become way too acceptable to be anti-Muslim.  When followers of Jesus stand in solidarity and express their love and welcome for Muslims, this is a good thing that should be respected and imitated.  My friend, Justin Long, has provided a really excellent article on why we should love Muslims and extend hospitality to them (especially to migrants).

3. Dr. Hawkins confused the issue by packing some muddy missiology into it.  In my opinion, Dr. Hawkins should have made this about solidarity with Muslim women and left it there.  Instead, she inserted questions about theology/missiology that made it very difficult for the Wheaton College administration.  By declaring that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, she was taking a position that certainly can be defended but is nevertheless easy to misunderstand.  I have spent a lot of time in those missiological waters and I know enough about them to make me want to ask the professor exactly what she means by that.  Indeed if one of my own staff members made a similar public statement without a careful explanation, I might have to take a very similar course of action as the college.  To be sure, there is a sense in which her statement (and Pope Francis' statement) is true, but there is also a very real sense in which it is false.  Let's put it this way: Do Muslims worship the God of Abraham? They would say yes.  Do Muslims worship Jesus who is the God of Abraham?  They would say no.  Islam wholeheartedly rejects the divinity of Christ and the triunity of God even while affirming the spiritual heritage of Abraham, Isaac, Jabob, and Moses.  If someone asks if Muslims and Christians worship the same God, the only reasonable answer is, "it's complicated."

My point is that this is muddy water.  Followers of Jesus should spend time in such waters, but bringing that mud into a question about love and solidarity is unnecessary and unhelpful.  I don't blame Dr. Hawkins for being a bit out of her depth here (she is a highly accomplished political scientist and not a missiologist), but it is also difficult for me to blame the college for the steps they have taken.

I hope that Dr. Hawkins will have the opportunity to clarify herself on this point and that Wheaton will reinstate her and affirm her call for solidarity.  I myself affirm it with the reservations I've mentioned above.


A Fresh New Look

The blog has just undergone a facelift and name change. Gone is "the Ramblings" and here to stay is "Borderless Blogging". It's a new day and I needed a fresh start. All the old posts are still here, by the way, but there is going to be much more coming. Stay tuned!