Tuesday, May 27, 2014

New Americans


The scene unfolded in the seventh-floor courtroom of the United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, imposing and a little intimidating in its dark-paneled solemnity.

But the mood was anything but solemn on a beautiful spring day as 72 immigrants crowded into the chamber to take the oath of U.S. citizenship, accompanied by throngs of family members, friends and assorted crying babies. “Cries of freedom,” the judge wryly observed later in the ceremony.

The citizens-to-be filled the jury box and one entire side of the courtroom. The rest of us packed every remaining seat. “Are you sufficiently uncomfortable?” asked the court official who heroically attempted to arrange us. Yes, ma’am.

I was there to cheer Helen, 20, a member of my church who emigrated from Nepal with her family nine years ago (her younger brother would become a citizen two days later). Now a rising junior in college, she’s majoring in social work and wants to serve God by serving the poor and needy. She’s already been doing that for years by helping her mother, who ministers to Nepali refugees resettling in our area.

This being a government function, paperwork and plenty of hurry-up-and-wait came first. This being Virginia — and one of the original court districts established by the Judiciary Act of 1789 — volunteers from the Daughters of the American Revolution assisted. But in the fullness of time, the moment arrived. All rose as Judge David J. Novak entered the court to welcome America’s newest citizens and administer the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. 

 “It’s a fine day to become an American. Whaddaya think?” said Novak, the grandson of Czech immigrants, as he strode to the bench.

“We’re a nation of immigrants,” he added, highlighting some of the great Americans who came from other places. New waves of immigration add vitality to our culture. What makes America different? You can go to other countries but never really become one of their own, Novak said, “but anyone can come here from any corner of the world, and you can be an American.” He outlined the rights and duties of citizenship, and then asked the group of 72 to stand and lift their right hands for the oath.

Following the 140-word pledge, Novak declared, “It is an honor to be the first to welcome you to the United States — my fellow citizens!” Applause. Smiles. Tears and hugs. Novak led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and came down from the bench to shake hands with each new citizen as their names and countries of origin were read aloud. 

Despite the racial and linguistic diversity of the group, I had assumed they came from eight or 10 different countries. After all, Richmond isn’t New York, Washington or Los Angeles. I was wrong. These 72 new Americans, in this single ceremony, came from Italy, India, the Philippines, Egypt, Mexico, Iran, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Brazil, the Netherlands, Honduras, Ethiopia, Canada, El Salvador, Pakistan, Ecuador, China, Guyana, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belize, Japan, Trinidad and Tobago, Vietnam, New Zealand, Venezuela, Guatemala, Senegal, Bosnia, Croatia, South Korea, Nepal, Morocco and Jamaica.

That’s 38 countries. Count ‘em, 38. E pluribus unum, reads the Great Seal of the United States: “Out of many, one.”

The scene powerfully reminded me that the nations have come to us. Has any land ever been such a powerful magnet to people yearning for freedom and opportunity as America?

Some folks believe American society is being fragmented by the constant inflow of outsiders and that “out of many, one” is becoming “out of many, chaos.” But I’m with Judge Novak: I believe new Americans bring new energy, creativity and productivity to our culture, as they always have.

The more important question: What are God’s purposes in this historic movement of people from everywhere to a single nation?

“We are living in an unprecedented time in the history of our world,” writes IMB urban strategist Terry Sharp. “More people are living outside their country of birth than any other time; many of them are coming to America. In fact, more than 1 million immigrants come to America each year. That’s not counting more than 750,000 international students who will come to study, nor does it include the 75,000 refugees that are resettled in our country each year. Add the business travelers and tourists who are visiting. When you start adding up the numbers, it doesn’t take long to realize that God desires His people groups to hear the Gospel so much that He’s sending them to us.

“As we ponder the opportunities that God has brought to the shores of North America, it’s important to realize that the vast majority of immigrants, international students and refugees are coming from [areas unreached by the Gospel]. Wow! What an opportunity we have to share the Good News with the nations right here at home. That doesn’t mean we don’t go overseas, but it does mean we shouldn’t miss the wonderful opportunities the Father is giving His church. The nations are literally living next door.”

 What can you do?

 Start small. Smile at the woman at the grocery store who came from somewhere else. Help her find the items she needs from the bewildering array of choices. Invite that new family on your street or in your apartment complex over for a meal. Ask about their lives and experiences.

 Listen. Offer assistance with English practice. Help their kids with homework. Offer advice on starting a bank account, finding a doctor, getting a driver’s license.

 Be a friend. Many immigrants and refugees from community-oriented cultures struggle with the hyper-individualism and isolation of American culture. (Find many more ideas and resources here: http://www.ethnecity.com/.)

The newcomer you welcome might be a high-flying business executive, or a struggling refugee. Either way, they need a friend.

And chances are, they need Jesus. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

More than bread alone

What is the meaning of life?
That’s a question only rich people have time to ponder, some folks say. The world’s poor are too busy struggling for survival to concern themselves with something as nebulous as the “meaning of life” — unless it helps put food on the table.

Not true, according to a recent study published in the academic journal Psychological Science.
The study analyzed Gallup World Poll data from more than 130 countries, including the bottom 50 in terms of gross domestic product. Citizens of poorer countries actually ranked the importance of meaning in their lives higher than residents of more prosperous nations. The study looked at multiple factors contributing to this phenomenon, but in country after country, a common element emerged: faith.

“In part, meaning in life was higher in poor nations because people in those nations were more religious,” reported the study’s authors. “The mediating role of religiosity remained significant after we controlled for potential third variables, such as education, fertility rate, and individualism. As Frankl stated in Man’s Search for Meaning, it appears that meaning can be attained even under objectively dire living conditions, and religiosity plays an important role in this search.”

They meant Viktor Frankl, the renowned psychiatrist and author, who said, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” As a survivor of Nazi death camps, he had authority to speak personally on the subject. Echoing Nietzsche, Frankl wrote, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

The “why” for many people who responded to the Gallup World Poll is faith.

I can hear the skeptics now: Faith is a rickety crutch the poor lean on — and an opiate the powerful use to lull the weak into accepting their lot. That might apply to certain lives or particular moments in history, but it can’t explain the power of faith in the human heart through the ages.

Even in affluent societies where secularism and materialism appear to be prevailing, people want something more, something deeper, so they look for God substitutes. “Instead of relying on religion to give life meaning, people in wealthy societies today try to create their own meaning via their identity and self-knowledge,” the study reported. Materialism and self-worship have become the “religions” of the rich, but they’re obscene counterfeits of the worship of God.

When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, the devil challenged Him to prove He was the Son of God by changing stones to bread. Jesus answered from the Scriptures: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”’ (Matthew 4:4, NASB).

Humanity needs bread to sustain life. But bread isn’t enough. People crave the Bread of Life: Jesus Christ. That’s why the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ and the making of disciples among all peoples are the primary mission of God for His church in the world.

There are many ways to carry out that mission including feeding the poor, ministering to the sick and needy and seeking justice for the oppressed. Fair-minded observers who put aside stereotypes of evangelical Christians long enough to examine evangelical activities in the world quickly discover that they are doing all of those things (see some examples here: https://gobgr.org/). The love of Christ compels them. Above all, however, the Great Commission command of Christ and the mission of God compel them. There is no artificial division between the Word of Christ and the love of Christ in authentic ministry.
“Every time Jesus sent out His disciples and apostles, He always told them to heal the sick and preach the Gospel,” said a missionary doctor some years ago. “It’s not that we heal so that we can preach. We’re not ‘bait.’ We heal and preach together in obedience to the commands of Jesus. It’s like a two-handled plow: You heal, you preach and you push forward and God cuts the path so He can plant the seeds of the Gospel through His power.”

The Gospel gives ultimate meaning.