Apr 30, 2010

Receiving Tools From The Unlikeliest Of Places

I remember when I first came to Norway almost eight years ago, back when I was a strong TBM, I was so turned-off by the Norwegian Lutheran Church. As I was learning the language, I would read newspaper editorials and articles about religion in Norway, the approach of the state Church here, and my impression was that it was simply watered-down Christianity directed by politics that didn't require anything of its members and had totally veered away from the "right" path after ordaining female priests, being open to homosexuality, etc.

On Easter Sunday I went to Lutheran mass with my husband (who is still officially Lutheran, though never attended church regularly) and my Afghan refugee brother Hassan. I certainly haven't been looking to "jump ship" membership-wise, but as I've found it increasingly difficult to go to the LDS Church regularly, I decided why not check out something different.

Last Sunday was stake conference and since I wasn't about to go all the way to Oslo for church even at the height of my TBM days, I told my husband I was going to go to the Lutheran service just for the heck of it. He said he wanted to come with me, so we went. The church was packed (a rarity) because it was baby christening Sunday. At first I was disappointed because I just wanted to be there for a regular service. So we sat there and enjoyed the music and screaming babies, and then a man that neither of us knew got up and held a sermon that totally took our breath away.

He told a story about a friend of his, a doctor in a nearby city who was on his way to a Christmas party one evening last December and suddenly noticed a young man on the street who looked quite distressed. He felt that he should stop and ask him what the matter was, and so he did. The young man replied that he had missed the last bus to the refugee centre where he lived (which is quite a way outside of the city and certainly not within walking distance, especially not in the middle of winter). When he mentioned the word "refugee," my husband and I looked at each other, surprised, since the matter of refugees is extremely central in our lives at this time. And then he mentioned that the man said he was a refugee from Afghanistan, which really took our breath away. (The Afghans are the ones we've gotten really close to and they have such a special place in our hearts. I started to think of Hassan, imagining if it were him sitting out in the cold somewhere with no place to go, and suddenly I couldn't stop my eyes from overflowing with tears.) The doctor decided that Christmas parties will come and go each year, but this was an opportunity for service that he couldn't let go. So he drove the young man home and was invited in for tea. It was the first time he had entered a refugee centre (very few Norwegians ever do) and it was an eye-opener for him. The young Afghan man introduced him to some of his other Afghan friends and they struck up a close friendship, which led to the devlopment of a Norwegian-Afghan support network. In the process, he and some of his friends converted to Christianity and are active in the Norwegian church community in a nearby city.

The man closed his sermon with an inspiring talk about our attitudes towards refugees in Norway. (At worst, some are downright hostile, but most probably view them as a big burden to society that they wish would simply go away.) So he asked the congregation: should we lament about this "burden" of refugees, or should we thank God that they survived the dangerous journey to this country and view them as an asset? He finished with a prayer, specifically mentioning the refugees of our town. My husband and I we were both sort of floored, as this is not a topic one expects to hear at church -- and of all the Sundays that it should be mentioned, when we were actually there to hear it... my husband even felt moved enough to go up and take the sacrament at the end of the meeting, which I had never seen before.

It's funny to think that we should decide to go to Lutheran mass on exactly that day, but I'm sure glad we did. I got in contact via e-mail with the man who spoke and told him how he probably had no idea of the the unlikely impact he would make that day with his sermon. He was appreciative for the feedback and as he thought more and more about it, felt compelled to contact me again about working together in an interfaith/cultural network of people in the area who want to work towards building a better relationship with the refugee community in our town. And who is more prepared to do that than us?

A few years ago, I would have felt it was such a waste of time to get involved in a "wrong" church when I had the "true" one. Now that truth is in the backseat and the welfare of souls (not just in a spiritual sense, but especially in a temporal, humanitarian sense) is in the driver's seat, I'm just thankful for the opportunity to help and for the tools that seem to be finding their way to me, from the unlikeliest of places.

Apr 4, 2010

A Mormon And A Muslim Go To Mass

Although we have some similarities, there's a significant difference between the worshipping styles of Mormons and other Christian denominations. And this difference is perhaps most noticeable during the two biggest Christian celebrations: Christmas and Easter. Compared to their Catholic and Protestant counterparts, Mormons are, on average, probably much better at actually attending church on a regular basis. Though the Church is extremely small in Norway, my local branch probably draws an average of around 15-20 people on any given Sunday. The local Lutheran church draws about the same number on most Sundays, despite the fact that there are thousands of more Lutherans than Mormons.

But, while Mormons are generally better in the church attendace department than our Catholic and Protestant counterparts, I think that we could learn a thing or two from them when it comes to celebrating -- or even acknowledging -- the holy days of Christianity. Cases in point: Unless Christmas falls on a Sunday, Mormon churches are closed. If General Conference happens to fall on Easter Sunday like this year, then conference takes precedence. And as a life-long Mormon, I had never even heard of the Ascension of Christ or Pentecost celebrations -- both stat holidays in much of Europe -- until I moved here.

So this year, I just felt like doing something different and decided to experience Lutheran Easter Sunday mass in a church that dates back to about 1150. Along with my Lutheran-on-record husband, I had the pleasure of being accompanied by my Afghan brother, Hassan (see my previous post for the story of how I met him).

It was a special day for me, to be accompanied by two of the dearest people in my life, and to have a quiet day to reflect upon what the whole thing actually means to me. I used to think of Lutheranism as watered-down Christianity, changing with the times and without much emphasis on lifestyle or morality. I could sit here and argue how true or not that is, or which approach to Christianity is "better," but suffice it to say that on this day, it was what I needed.

The priest recited a story about how he was once officiating at a funeral and after throwing the three ceremonial spoonfuls of earth onto the casket, a five-year old boy remarked that it was not enough. This, he was reminded, was the central message of the story of Easter. On our own, we can never do "enough." This was a dilemma that had been much on my mind this past week as I attempted to comfort a very distraught refugee friend who is facing a looming deportation order.
Jesus said, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you" (John 14: 18). God says he will not leave us comfortless, but it seems that more often than not, that is dependent on whether or not we are willing to extend that comfort to someone.
"Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn."
-Romans 12: 15
I got to do a little of both this past week.

At the core of the sermon was the message, "Gud er kjærlighet" -- God is love. I think that many of us want to believe that, but become witnesses to so many attrocities and injustices of varying degree in this world -- many committed in the name of God -- that it becomes extremely problematic to reconcile "God's love" with reality or religion. Hassan's life is a perfect example of that.

Many today, including myself, are moving away from a literal, orthodox approach to religion. Whatever our view on the Easter miracle, or religion in general -- whether literal or metaphorical -- love is a central theme. Instead of focusing on where we fall short and beating ourselves up over it, sometimes it's better to just focus on that love. Sometimes it's really all we can do.

Although my life is nothing to complain about, it's hard to feel God's love. I can say that my life is good and therefore I feel God's love, but all I have to do is look around me to see examples of why equating material wealth or stability with divine love is so problematic. Perhaps the closest I can come to feeling God's love is indirectly -- through the individuals that enrich and enlighten my life.

I'm not looking to switch religions, but as a lapsed Mormon, I enjoyed the simplicity of the Lutheran priest's poignant sermon. And as a lapsed Muslim, even though he doesn't yet understand much Norwegian, I hope that Hassan was uplifted by the special atmosphere of this holy day.

Thanks for an Easter Sunday that I will remember. It was a good day.

Happy Easter, everyone.