Review: You Welcomed Me

You Welcomed Me

You Welcomed MeKent Annan. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Describes the global refugee crisis, the opportunities that the church has to extend welcome, and the fears and misunderstandings that prevent us from doing so.

There are as many as 66 million refugees in the world today. Currently, the U.S. is slated to accept fewer that 22,000, the lowest number in decades while much smaller countries have accepted as many as 2.5 million. Kent Annan, who directs the humanitarian and disaster leadership program at Wheaton College was asked by his son whether we are for or against refugees. A good question indeed, considering these numbers.

Starting with the simple statement of Jesus in Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” Kent Annan explores why the church should be for refugees and how we can extend welcome. He does much of this by telling stories. He begins with the idea of how these people could be any of us, helping us through these stories to recognize the common humanity we share with refugees, reminding us that scripture tells us that it could be angels we entertain when we welcome these strangers.

Annan explores fears that we have about opening our doors more widely to immigrants. Through both stories and statistics, he shows that these fears are misplaced. We have a 1 in 364 billion chance of being murdered by a refugee in a terrorist attack, a 1 in 10.9 billion chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack by an illegal immigrant, while we have a 1 in 14,000 chance of being murdered by anyone, a 1 in 303 chance of dying in an auto accident, and 1 in 7 chance of dying of cancer. Immigrants and refugees in this country contributed $63 billion more than they cost this country over the last decade. Urban neighborhoods into which immigrants move often see a reduction in crime and revitalization.

Annan also helps us empathize by sharing stories of the refugee experience. The snapshots he relates involve departures from unsafe or politically insecure situations, often leaving careers and possessions behind. Often, their flight involves harrowing and life-endangering journeys. Many spend years in refugee camps awaiting resettlement while undergoing rigorous vetting.

He gets practical in terms of what can be done, including information about agencies assisting refugees in the U.S. (some whose existence is threatened by our country’s reduction in the number of refugees it will accept). He urges us to become part of a human chain of being good neighbors, committing to hope, to reconciliation, and to grace.

Finally, drawing from the name of a relief organization, Annan pleads that to be for refugees is to say “here is life.” To welcome refugees is to participate in God’s in-breaking kingdom where we were welcomed and have found life through the Life Giver. We exchange fear for hope, hate for love, scarcity for abundance.

In each chapter, Annan offers practices that can set us started on the road to welcoming refugees and immigrants, making the book useful for a church mission team or study group. An appendix provides descriptions and contact information for the major refugee organizations working in the U.S. The book admits but doesn’t try to solve public policy problems. It helps us empathize (as much as a book can do) with what it is like to be a refugee, and encourages us to find out personally. It focuses on what church people can do to learn and act. I suspect if  a growing movement came forward and said “we want the country to increase the amount of refugees we welcome and we are willing to do the hard work of helping them settle,” that could have public policy implications.

This is a short book that does not try to do to much. And perhaps there is wisdom in this. If we will not heed and wrestle with Jesus’s words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” I’m not sure the need at this point is for more words.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Come to the Table

Bible_and_Lord's_Cup_and_Bread

By John Snyder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In my day (and often evening!) work, I am a collegiate minister with graduate student and faculty groups. Perhaps many of my best memories are those of gathering around tables and sharing good food together. Often it is food prepared by many different people, and often from many different countries. And it is often accompanied by fascinating conversation ranging from public policy to dark matter to Jane Austin to the latest episode of Game of Thrones. A number of those at our tables come from countries where, even more than ours, serving food is the way we say “welcome.”

We often consider the cross one of the most central symbols of Christianity, focusing as it does on the work of Christ by which our salvation was accomplished for all trust and follow him. While I do not want to replace this as the central symbol of Christian faith, I do want to propose that the table is an important symbolic object.

It represents God’s seeking and welcoming of his people. There is a strange and wonderful scene in Exodus 24 where Moses takes Aaron and a group of 70 elders up Mt. Sinai. The rest wait at a distance while Moses builds an altar, offers sacrifices, reads the Book of the Covenant, which they all agree to obey. They are sprinkled with blood and then invited to dine with God:

“Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (vv. 9-11, NIV)

Many of us learned Psalm 23 as children. It concludes with these lines:

You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever. (vv. 5-6)

God’s comfort in the valley of death and the presence of enemies (including, one must suppose, the ultimate enemy of death) is a table where one is honored as a guest with an anointed forehead and an overflowing cup, and the assurance the abiding welcome in the house of the one who has set this table.

While churches have various beliefs and practices around the Eucharist, or Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, the common element is that we gather around either real or ritual tables and partake of bread and wine (or grape juice) that represent or even in some way become the body and blood of Christ. We are reminded that we are nourished in Christ, and come close to both God and each other around this table. The wealthy, the widow, and the impoverished partake together.

I’m reminded of a folk hymn we sang years ago, “God and Man at Table are Sat Down” (words and music by Robert J. Stamps). It begins:

O, welcome all ye noble saints of old 
As now before your very eyes unfold 
The wonders all so long ago foretold. 
God and man at table are sat down.

The fourth verse reminds us that the welcome of God to the table extends to all humanity.

Beggars, lame, and harlots also here; 
Repentant publicans are drawing near. 
Wayward sons come home without a fear. 
God and man at table are sat down.

It concludes with the wonder at the heart of this time

Here He gives Himself to us as bread.
Here as wine we drink the blood He shed.
Born to die, we eat and live instead,
God and man at table are sat down;
God and man at table are sat down.

All this anticipates the great and everlasting table of the feast when Christ and his bride are united. Growing up, I went to a number of weddings of friends from eastern European and Italian backgrounds, with mountains of food, drinks that freely flowed, and dancing and celebration that went the whole night long. One wedding took over the whole foyer of the performing arts center in my home town, and we danced the tarantella up and down the steps. I have a sense that this great day is something like that only far, far better! John writes in The Revelation:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
    For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
 Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
 Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”

(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:6-9).

I am persuaded that all our gatherings around tables to eat and enjoy the company of each other are fundamental to our existence not simply because we need the nourishment of food and community, but also as anticipations of the great table to which God invites us.

One quality of God’s table is that he graciously welcomes all without distinction. Tables at their best are places of welcome, where distinctions of national origin, gender, economic status, or success in life matter not at all. Good tables include and embrace rather than exclude, unless, like the elder son in the parable of the prodigal, one excludes oneself and refuses the invitation to come.

Tomorrow, I will reflect on the question of who is not at our tables and how the logic of our joyous community and common Lord challenges us to keep making room at our tables for those who are not there.

Review: The Irresistible Community

Irresistable CommunityThe Irresistible CommunityBill Donahue. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2015.

Summary: Looking at the upper room narratives, Donahue explores how Jesus created community through the table, the towel, and the truth.

As I sat down to write this review, I found my fingers stumbling over the correct spelling of “irresistible”. Then I found myself stumbling over the concept. Was the community Jesus formed in the upper room truly irresistible? I don’t think Judas would have thought so. Frankly, I think this title is a bit of publishing hyperbole. What I do think Donahue has done is describe three marks of a community that changes lives under the leadership of Jesus, and this is in fact an important contribution to the life of our churches and other places where Christians gather and attempt to be “communities”.

The first of these marks is that they are communities that welcome all to Jesus’s table. This involves practicing good table manners from welcoming, to seeing and being the truth, to establishing trust, forgiving, and settling for progress rather than insisting on perfection. Donahue talks about different kinds of tables from the kitchen table to the coffee table to the conference table that each are appropriate at a certain stage of community life. Tables are places of stories, places where we take time to hear each others stories and consider how they come together in the story God is telling through this community.

Our encounters in truly welcoming each other at the table lead to the ministry of the towel, the challenging work of learning to truly serve each other in community. There is the issue of being clear about our identity as serving communities–do we embrace this and clearly understand how we are called to serve? True serving means our towels will get dirty as we jump in where we are needed. True serving means keeping our towels in a circle, remaining accountable to and responsible for each other. True serving means leaning into the sources of renewal when we are tempted to throw in the towel.

Finally, real community is galvanized by the truth. It is a community that hungers for truth and is open to the ministry of the Spirit of truth. It is a community where we tell ourselves the truth, where we lovingly and honestly reflect back to each other the truth we need to grasp about ourselves. It is a place where we challenge false narratives about God, ourselves and others. Truth can be dangerous, calling us into places of risk in the adventure of following Christ

Donahue uses an interesting device to open each chapter. He begins with an “interior narrative” of what each of the twelve disciples at the table are thinking as they sit around the table in the upper room. Each is paired to the content of the chapter.

Welcome. Service. Truth. I do think these are marks of healthy communities. But not all will accept our welcome. People will turn away from our service. And sometimes holding to the truth, however lovingly, will turn away those not ready to face the truth, particularly about themselves. So, while I find the community Donahue describes authentic, transforming, and real, I still don’t get the irresistible. But I think we can learn things from the community he describes that will benefit the communities of which we are part. That’s good enough.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”