As the days draw in and the temperatures slip slowly downward, sun through the leaves on an autumn afternoon relieves the sadness of the struggles of life… In fact, even in a world full of pain, there is still joy in the everyday.
The events in Iraq over recent weeks have shocked the world and cries out for action, for response, but it is easy to feel helpless as we observe from a distance the slaughter of innocents, Christians, Muslims and Yazidis. We look to our governments to react but in Sweden at least there has been a noticeable lack of comment at a government level. In the last day a few headlines have caught my attention, amongst others an article about the deportation of a Yazidi man, an asylum seeker who the Immigration Department has decided to send back to Iraq because they have assessed the situation there to not be of sufficient threat to his safety, and because they believe there are adequate safe havens in Iraqi refugee camps (see http://www.svt.se/nyheter/varlden/migrationsverket-fortsatter-att-utvisa-yazidier). This seems extraordinary in light of the constant reports in the media of the aim of ISIS to wipe out this people group, effective genocide. One wonders just how dangerous it needs to be in a country to justify asylum in Sweden. The Swedish government has said that they will respond to the crisis with humanitarian aid (though I am not aware of any forthcoming yet), but they have no intention of getting involved militarily. The Kurdish forces that seem to represent the only significant military resistance on the ground in Iraq need arms, but despite the fact that weapons represent a major export in Sweden there appears no intention of Sweden to even provide this kind of assistance, let alone actual troops.
Örebro is home to thousands of Assyrian Christians, families who have fled from their various homelands in Turkey and Syria. They speak a language close to Aramaic, the native tongue of Jesus. They are, unlike many Westerners, proudly Christian, and unashamed of their allegiance to the Syrian Orthodox Church in this country where it is regarded as somewhat inappropriate to speak publicly about personal faith. These Assyrian Christians have a heritage of persecution and genocide. The events of 1915 are still fresh in the minds of many even if they happened long before contemporary Assyrians were born. The Assyrian community in Sweden has been shocked by the events unfolding in Iraq in the last few weeks. Although many Swedes (and not just Swedes, but Westerners in general) seem to find it relatively easy to turn a blind eye, possibly even to think things can’t be as bad as the media is making out (think of the reaction of the Immigration Department), Assyrian Christians have no illusions about just how bad things can be. They are acutely aware that if ISIS means to wipe out Christians (not to mention Yazidis and even Muslims of other persuasions) then they will do it if no-one stops them. They are also acutely aware that the ambitions of ISIS are not limited to Syria and Iraq, but to the whole Muslim world and beyond.
Today we joined the Assyrian church (St Marias kyrka) in a march in central Örebro to demonstrate solidarity with the threatened peoples of Iraq and opposition to the ISIS terrorists. The march was a quiet affair – indeed it was meant to be silent, symbolising the response of the Swedish government to the crisis, the seeming reluctance of people in power in Sweden to denounce ISIS. It was a privilege to walk with thousands of Assyrians through the streets of our city. Most of the churches of Örebro joined in, and even some secularists – the Humanism Society – supported the initiative. At the end of the march we gathered in Olof Palmes Torg to listen to various speakers, from both the Swedish Christian communities and the Assyrian Christian community (as well as a few politicians). We were reminded that what is happening in Iraq at the moment represents the plans of a very powerful group of terrorists to eradicate ancient Eastern Christianity from the earth. Many see this church as the cradle of Christianity, even as the cradle of what we know as Western civilisation. It was sobering to reflect on the events unfolding in the world today.
At the end we walked back to the car and crossed the big square in town, Stortorget, where various political groups were speaking on their soapboxes. There is an election in Sweden in a few weeks time and the political parties of the nation are presenting their visions for a better Sweden to the populace. There have been signs around town advertising the rallying cries of various party representatives. These vary from the usual things such as job creation and school reforms to some which are blatantly ridiculous. Perhaps the most embarrassing is the picture of an aspiring politician with the words beneath, “Scrap TV fees.” In the context of the times we are living in can there be anything more trivial?
West of Sydney are the Blue Mountains, spectacular and of major significance in the history and development of European colonisation of NSW. West of Örebro there is a range of low lying hills which is also sometimes called den blåa bergen – the blue mountains – which is of significance in the history and development of Sweden in the 18th and 19th centuries. For Australia the Blue Mountains represented a barrier to westward expansion from the sea, where the colony of Port Jackson had been founded. For Sweden, the blue mountains, being part of Bergslagen, represented rich deposits of iron ore which were of a major source of wealth if only it could be got out of the ground.
But nowadays Örebro’s blue mountains are mainly a recreational area, and yesterday morning in the crisp Spring sunshine I went for a few hours hike up into the hills, in the area around Klockahammar and Lockhyttan, up to one of the most spectacular viewpoints, a rocky outcrop called Rusakulan. I parked the car at Blankhult, where there is a stuga (lodge) for vandrare (hikers) and headed northward along Berglagsleden (the Bergslag trail). The track, mostly dry but in some places muddy, first skirted around a wooded rise, among birches just bursting into leaf. The sun was warm on my shoulders and although the temperature was not more than 5 or 6 degrees I was soon unzipping my cotton jacket to cool down.
A wooden sculpture appeared ahead, vaguely menacing, an image of a woodcutter strategically placed where the trail suddenly dropped steeply down, down into a darkly forested gully, the so called Trolldalen (troll hollow). I read the plaque nailed on the tree stump on which he stood – “Portvakten” – the gatekeeper. I descended the trail, into the forest glade, glimpsing a tiny lake through the trees to my left, and at the bottom crossed a rough bridge of birch trunks over a crystal clear beck. There was not a troll in sight. The lake, I discovered, was one of many dams built some time in the far past to provide a steady water supply for the forest industry surrounding the getting of iron.
The track then climbed through darker woods of towering firs and pines. The forest floor was soft with moss, the track mostly dry, as I hopped over roots and rocks, winding between the endless trees. Another lake appeared on my right – Stora Klockahyttesjön – the water glittering in the morning light. A sign marked the location of a former kolbotten (coal bottom) where once men worked to produce charcoal for the smelting of iron. There were thousands of these dotted throughout Bergslagen at one time in history, when the processing of iron ore required vast quantities of fuel. I tried to imagine the life of a charcoal burner, living out here in the forest, cutting wood, living in a little hut with maybe one companion. These men were crofters – they paid the rent for their croft in charcoal – so this was an important part of their daily existence, but by no means the focus of their lives, which was to produce enough food for their families. The old wooden houses – “torp” – of the crofters are still to be seen all through Kilsbergen, which is the name by which the blue mountains are known here outside Örebro.
Eventually I found the steep winding track up to Rusakulan and climbed panting up and out of the trees to the rocky top. I had not passed another human on the way, but there on the top were two men who had come up by another way, on motorbikes. One of them recognised me – it seemed odd to be greeted by name out there in the middle of the wilderness – and we chatted idly as we gazed out over the vast landscape of the Närke plain. In the distance we could see Örebro and the big lake of Hjälmaren, but closer we spotted the spire of Närkes Kil’s mediaeval village church. Tysslingen lake also glinted in the sun, and all around the fields lay brown and ready for the growing season ahead – a tractor was ploughing with a cloud of dust behind.
I descended the stony knoll on the other side and came eventually back to the track I had come on. Back through the forest and the troll gully, across the whispering beck. Past the gatekeeper I took a different route, upwards over higher country where the forest had been cleared and the land was covered with stumps and new growth. Clusters of tiny white flowers – vitsippor – quivered in the gentle breeze, one of the “signs of spring.” Some old towering pine trees had been left, standing lonely in the barren landscape. I found myself thinking of “lone pines” and battlefields of WW1. It was Anzac Day after all, though no Swedes I had asked knew what that was. I descended to where the car was parked and drove back into town, refreshed and energised by my few hours in the blue hills.
Date: 25 April 2014 05:47
Location: Örebro, Sweden
Weather: -2° Mostly Sunny
The sun is just creeping over the horizon here in the far north; another glorious Spring day of blue skies and birdsong breaks forth. In Turkey, barely four hours away by plane, its an hour later, 6.45 am, and the sun has already risen there too. I think of the thousands of my countrymen (and women) who are gathered at Gallipoli this morning for the dawn service, commemorating the men who fought and died there in 1915 during the ill-fated ANZAC campaign. The 25th April is indelibly etched into my consciousness, as it is for all Australians, as a day to remember those young men who sailed off to a distant war, a war which was so vitally important to that whole generation of Australians though it feels odd to us in our day, a war which dragged the world from idealism and naivety into the modern age, a war that ended so many young lives full of promise, and changed others forever.
I just read a blog by an Australian family history enthusiast (cassmob). It is entitled entitled “Two brothers go to war” and tells the story of Les and Fred Fisher (sons of Martin Fischer), who were cousins of my great grandfather, Charles Holdorf (son of Caroline Fischer), who also served with the Australian Army in the Great War. Living, as I do now, closer to Germany than Australia, I have found myself wondering lately about other, at present unknown, relatives who were likely serving in the same war but on the other side, since the Holdorfs and the Fishers came from German stock, immigrants to Australia in the 1850s.
1915 seems a long time in the past, and the blood soaked beaches of Gallipoli seem a long way away from our peaceful home in Scandinavia. The Spring this year is beautiful. Yesterday when I woke I walked into our sun drenched dining room for breakfast and thought to myself, days like this make me glad to be alive.
Yesterday afternoon there was a gathering of Christians in Stortorget, the big town square in Örebro. It was Easter Day and a small group of churches had decided to celebrate the day publicly. I was there with some of the family, and I couldn’t help thinking how unusual it felt, to be celebrating one of our Christian high days outdoors and in public. Religion in Sweden is seen by the secular majority as a very private affair, not something to be discussed with or displayed among strangers. The majority of Christian believers seem to have bought into this idea, presumably to avoid causing offence. Christians from other cultures and nations – the Syrian Orthodox, for example, seem to have no such inhibitions, announcing openly to the world that they are Christians, especially proud of the fact that their language is close to Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. But “we Swedes” tend to be hesitant to acknowledge our faith in the open, determined to blend in and be as indistinguishable as possible from the rest of society.
Yesterday, however, was different. We met and worshipped in the town square, publicly acknowledging our faith in the extraordinary and supernatural event of Jesus’s resurrection. There were not many there – a huge contrast to the annual Christmas concert held in the same square every December, when thousands crowd in to sing Christmas carols and be entertained. The Christmas message of course is much nicer, a feel good story of peace and goodwill towards all that many non-believers can celebrate with perfect ease. The Easter story is so bizarre that it is regarded by a good many people as being little more than a religious myth. And yet the resurrection is the event on which the whole of the Christian faith depends. Without it Jesus is just another man, a good man perhaps, a man who made an impact on his friends, and to a certain extent the community in which he lived, but not really any more special than any other person on this earth, and certainly not one to change the world. I read the following quote the other day and it made me reflect again on this reality:
“If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” (Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism)
How can any modern rational person believe that Jesus really rose from the dead? I have asked myself why I believe it. In the end it boils down to one historical fact. The grave was empty. This was not disputed then, nor is it disputed now. What is disputed is *why* it was empty. Jesus was put into a secure grave with a big stone placed in front of it, and because of the anxiety and suspicion of the religious authorities of the day it was secured with armed guards. But when some female friends of Jesus came to pay their respects the next day, the guards were gone, the stone was rolled away and the grave was empty. Over the ensuing days many people met Jesus, and their lives were transformed by the experience, because the one they had seen executed was walking and talking among them.
The world has never been the same. That one event changed the course of history, because if Jesus rose from the dead his claim to be God – to be bigger than nature – needs to be taken seriously. Of course the religious authorities of the day understood this and naturally accused the friends of Jesus of stealing the body away and hiding it somewhere. But that seems rather unlikely, given the guards, and the question of what the disciples did with the body they had stolen. Why would the disciples say that Jesus had risen if he hadn’t? What did they hope to gain from such a claim? Were these uneducated fisherman from Galilee so delusional as to think that they could steal a body, dispose of it somehow and change the world by doing so? The disciples depicted in the New Testament seem to have had trouble understanding what Jesus was talking about a lot of the time. To imagine that they had the psychological and intellectual strength to hatch such a plot, seems beyond belief. The opposite, that they were so completely stunned, so totally overwhelmed, by this impossible event that their lives were turned upside down, all their preconceptions shattered and that they were willing to give their lives to defend its truth, seems much more likely.
The authorities were in a much better position to discredit the disciples than the disciples were to convince the masses. All they had to do was produce the body of Jesus to prove that he was dead. But they couldn’t. The body was gone. It has never been found. The only ones who saw the body of Jesus after his burial were the ones who saw him alive. According to the Bible there were many of them. It caused an uproar. Such an event had never happened before and never since. Resurrections may well have happened, they certainly have been reported and still are from time to time. But no one making the claims that Jesus made has ever come back from the dead. This was a unique event.
That is why Jesus is remembered. That is how he changed the world. He rose from the dead. He is God. That is why we milled around in town yesterday afternoon singing songs and bowing in prayer, in stark contrast to the world around us, a world that uses secular rationalism as its strategy to remove this uncomfortable personality from its consciousness. Why are we so offended by the supernatural, I sometimes wonder? Why does it threaten us so much? Why are we so much more willing to put our faith in science and our own intelligence than in a man that showed that he was over and above all that? Why is “naturalism” so much easier to believe in than supernaturalism?
There is so much that can be said about all that, but in the end it surely boils down to meeting an alive Jesus. In the first weeks after the resurrection it was the physical body of Jesus that people met. In our day it is a spiritually alive Jesus that people meet. They meet him in many different ways, but when they meet him many are convinced. Jesus did rise from the dead. He is alive today. He is who he says he is. And we should listen to him.