Day 1: By the Rivers of Babylon

Psalm 137:1
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.

Most of us in Australia are fortunate enough to have never needed to worry about our safety to the extent that we have fled our homes and even our country. But we do all have experiences of feeling unsafe, and we all understand the natural desire to protect our families from harm. And some of us have deeply felt the ultimate exile – of being separated from God.

Whilst we cannot fully understand, these experiences can be an entry point for us in seeking to comprehend the reality of those who have been caught up in geo-political events that turn their lives upside down.

The Bible reveals a history of exile: of forced displacement, destroyed kingdoms, military occupation, slavery, and refugees in foreign lands. We read the unique, detailed and differing accounts of the persecution and hardship of individuals throughout history. Indeed, one of the unique features of the Bible is that it is largely history ‘from below’, rather than the history of the victors.

The people of God knew full well what it is like to have to flee for safety, to live in exile and to experience the yoke of oppression.

When we approach the Bible as 21st century Australians it is very easy to detach ourselves from the danger, fear and sorrow of God’s people and indeed to hide from the pain and suffering in our modern world. As we read this collection of books, we not only read the history of God’s people, but hear the cry in their lament, the weeping in the prophecies, the rejoicing in their poetry, the laughter in the satire, and the repentance in their prayers. God’s people understood what it meant to be truly exiled, and yet to trust God in all things. We too, are called to enter into this story and to consider the wider world and how we can love our neighbours.

As we read and immerse ourselves in the Scriptures we too should weep, rejoice and cry out to God at the state of our broken world, yet trusting that He is in control.

If we can read the Scriptures with this in mind, it opens up all sorts of fresh insights for us that can then indeed apply to our own, very different lives. Do we have eyes to see? Do we have hearts that will listen? Do we have hearts that will listen?

Pray about it

Holy God, we give thanks for your steadfast love through our times of crisis and despair. Help us to use the suffering and brokenness in our own lives and in this world as we read the Scriptures to show us Yourself anew and to make us more like You. Amen.

Go Deeper

Is there a time in your life when you have been unsafe, or in crisis, or turned upside by events beyond your control? How does that experience inform your understanding of the Bible? How might people forced to become refugees experience the Bible differently to us?

Nearly 60 million people are displaced around the world because of conflict and persecution, the largest number ever recorded by the United Nations. Learn more about the scale of humanitarian displacement through the Human Flow documentary and this New York Times Report.

Day 2: Do not oppress the foreigner

Exodus 23:9
Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.

Ezekiel 22:7
In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow.

The command to welcome and care for the foreigner is one of the most frequent in the Hebrew Scriptures, and always comes without caveat or exception. YHWH is adamant that His people not become like the very people they escaped from so He regularly reminds them of their history. We see here a centring of Hebrew identity around the experience of seeking refuge and then slavery in Egypt, which provides an opportunity to know how it feels to be foreigners, that is, empathy.

Again and again God issues this command, through the Law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and then through prophets like Ezekiel, when Israel had forgotten what they were called to. Chapter after chapter, Ezekiel recounts a savage litany of the sins of Israel, and prophesied the destruction to come. It is no accident that oppression of foreigners (refugees) and mistreatment of orphans and widows is top of the list. The command to care for this vulnerable trio is absolutely central to the Torah, or law. And Ezekiel is making it clear that we will be judged by how we care for them, much more than on our observance of religious practices.

Later in this series we’ll how Jesus himself embodied this tradition, and called his disciples to the same.

For the people of God, their generous treatment of the foreigner was the measure of their heart’s response to God’s favour in their own lives. They were to act with compassion, not contempt.

So too are we.

Pray about it

Dear God, sometimes in our comfort we can forget ourselves. We no longer see ourselves as people who were once foreigners in the land of Egypt, and we fail to know the heart of the stranger. We are sorry. Work in our hearts that we might remember that we are Your people, to be known for our hospitality to all those in need. Amen.

Go Deeper

Have you had opportunities to welcome the foreigner? If not, how could you seek these out? Why do you think we find it so hard to welcome the foreigner today? Is this something you find personally challenging? If Ezekiel were to look upon the church in Australia, what would he see?

Two of the major displacement events in recent years have been the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, where millions of families have fled their homes and sought asylum in countries across the world. In Australia, after people across the country (including many Christians and churches) called on our government to show generosity and welcome to families fleeing these conflicts, the Australian Government committed to a special intake of 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. Our voices really do have power when we speak with compassion and conviction. But as our policies become increasingly harmful to people seeking asylum, the voice of the Church is needed more than ever.

Day 3: The Lord watches over the foreigner

Psalm 146:9
The Lord watches over the foreigner
   and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
   but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

With the toxic politics surrounding refugees in Australia, it may seem strange to us that Israel’s political leader, King David, praises God for watching over the foreigner.

In fact this whole Psalm is an ode to God’s care for the vulnerable: the oppressed, those who are hungry, prisoners, or blind, foreigners, the fatherless and widows (that is, without any source of family income). In doing so, David is clearly describing how he intends to lead his own people.

Imagine that!

This group of vulnerable people appear together throughout the Bible, so they are no accident. By contrast, we don’t hear much about God watching over the comfortable middle-class. It’s not that God doesn’t love us all equally, it’s that this love requires lifting up the vulnerable and oppressed, so that all might live life to the full.

The Bible makes it clear this is our calling, as individuals, as churches and as nations.

Pray about it

Praise the Lord, my soul! You are the maker of heaven and earth, You are faithful forever. You watch over the foreigner, and sustain the fatherless and the widow: teach me to do the same, that all of us may have abundant life. Amen.

Go Deeper

What would it mean if we were to follow God’s heart and place the vulnerable – and even the foreigner – at the centre of our political concern? What might it mean for the Government Budget? For how we engage in politics as Christians?

After WWII, in 1948, countries across the world came together to agree on a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that set out, for the first time, the fundamental human rights to be universally protected. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution" but in Australia we are increasingly seeing people who seek asylum turned away or indefinitely detained. Imagine if the Australian Church welcomed with generosity and inclusion in our churches, our communities, our workplaces, and our wider society.

Day 4: Desperation and Courage

Genesis 21:9-10..14
But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." ...Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Bersheba.”

Ruth 2:10
At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She asked him, “Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me—a foreigner?”

Destitute, desperate and deserted; Hagar and Ruth provide a rare insight into the lives of women in the ancient world. This Moabite stranger and Egyptian slave are driven from their homelands by famine and hardship, which ultimately leave them stranded in a foreign land. Left powerless and without protection, they are subject to the actions of those around them to determine their safety and security.

Hagar, an Egyptian woman, is forced to leave her homeland behind when she became a slave to Abraham and Sarah. She proves trustworthy, rising to the position of Sarah’s maidservant, and at Sarah’s wishes, she bears a son for Abraham. Yet despite Hagar’s obedience, she is betrayed by the person who promised protection, and once again she is left without a homeland, displaced and stranded in the desert.

Ruth, a Moabite stranger, journeys to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. Leaving behind her family, financial security and her gods, Ruth gives up everything to follow after Naomi, but despite the abundance of the land they return to, these women are left poor and hungry.

The cry of these non-Jewish women in foreign lands do not go unheard. God hears the cry of Hagar in the desert and Ruth in the field and rushes to meet them, providing not only for their present physical needs but providing hope for a future.

In Hagar’s betrayal we see that though her and Ishmael are cast out of Abraham’s house, God does not cast them out of His house. God honours this woman, protects her, removes her fear, and leads to her to the well, where He offers her life (Gen 21:19-20).

In Ruth’s boldness we see Ruth appeal to God’s promise of protection as she courageously reaps in the field and then appeals to Boaz for protection. This Moabite woman who was once a stranger, is brought into the family of God, and honoured as one of the four women in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:5).

At every turn we see the faithfulness of a good, compassionate God who gives honour and dignity to women who were cast out by those around them, those in dire circumstances, seeking safety, refuge and protection. God does not leave them in their desperation but welcomes them into His house. Truly God will not allow trouble, or famine, or hardship, or persecution, or danger, separate people from His great love! 

How might we as the church be called to model the same to those seeking safety, refuge and protection today?

Pray about it

Dear God, thank you for the stories of Ruth and Hagar, through which we see the world through the eyes and voices of two desperate yet courageous women. Give us similar courage in our own times of trial, and may we seek to provide the same refuge and protection as you have shown us. Amen.

Go Deeper

What happens to your experience of it if you place yourself in the shoes of each character in these stories? What can we learn from Ruth’s willingness to completely let go and trust in God, even at risk of her own life?

It can be difficult to relate to the experiences of people seeking asylum, but there are small ways we can start to learn more about the decisions and desperations so many are forced to make when they seek safety for their families. The Australian Red Cross has produced an interactive experience that takes you on a journey through situations and decisions refugees face and the choices they must for safety, freedom and protection. Download the app to start the refugee experience, and take time to pray through what you learn and explore.

Day 5: Gratitude

Luke 17:18
“Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Sometimes a lesson comes from an unexpected place in an unexpected moment. In this story Jesus has just healed ten men with leprosy. TEN! It was after they were healed that only one of them came back to Jesus to give praise. The logical thing to assume is that Jesus fellow countrymen would return to show their gratitude. Yet it is the foreigner that returns to give thanks when he is healed. 

My own personal lesson in gratitude came from an unexpected place too.

It was raining, and I (Justin) was late for an event where I was speaking. I was having one of those terrible days where everything was going wrong. When I arrived at the event, I was dripping wet and walked in while someone was talking to the gathering. Not the best entrance for a speaker. Yet my day took a sharp turn.

This wiry old man gets up with the biggest smile and says “I love Australia! What a blessing it is to live here!”

This man’s name is Mahmood and it turns out that he is a refugee who came to Australia a few years ago because his homeland was no longer safe for him and his family. When they came to Australia, they had nothing. Materially, they still have nothing really. But they have safety, they have each other, and they have hope.

And they have eyes to see gratitude that so many of us seem to have lost.

In this passage, Jesus is stunned that only the foreigner returns to give praise to God after being healed of leprosy. Everyone else seems to have taken this extraordinary event for granted, just as we Australians often take our safety and comfort for granted.

Sometimes it takes a Samaritan or a refugee - a foreigner - to remind us just how blessed we really are.

Pray about it

God, we give you thanks for this day. We thank you for the fundamental blessings of safety and a home which so many of us in Australia receive. Help us to be like the foreigner and Mahmood living grateful lives for everything we have. We thank you for the wonderful gift of Creation, and for the work of your Holy Spirit in our lives. Most of all, we thank you for Jesus, whose love for us was so strong it led him to the Cross. Amen.

Go Deeper

When was the last time you really paused to express gratitude to God for the blessings in your life? How can you create a regular habit of showing gratitude to God for these blessings?

Over the last century, many people have come to our shores seeking help from all over the world. These communities – from the Jewish people of WWII, to the Eastern European, Vietnamese and Lebanese communities that arrived in later years – have all played a part in making Australia what it is today. Of course, to be a refugee a person is judged on their need for protection, not on the contribution that they might make to their host country, and that is rightly so. But the fact remains that study after study has shown that people who have come to Australia as refugees have made overwhelmingly positive contributions, economically as well as culturally. Take some time today to read stories from the Refugee Council of the incredible contributions refugees have made to Australia.

Day 6: Jesus, the refugee

Matthew 2:13-15a
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.

Matthew 25:35, 43
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in … I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

It’s almost a cliché now, but Jesus was indeed a refugee.

In Matthew 2 we read that King Herod felt threatened by a rival claim to the throne, making the same mistake about the new ‘Messiah’ that many of Jesus’ friends and foes alike would make later in his life. And like tyrants in all times and places, Herod reacts with savage violence to wipe out the threat.

Jesus and his family, like political refugees in all times and places, are forced to flee in haste, in the dead of night. They do not get time to say goodbye to family and friends. There is no time to gather their papers. There is only flight, death or safety. And the hope of hospitality from strangers in a foreign land.

Millions of families today are experiencing this reality that Jesus himself experienced. Leaving everything behind, they flee in haste, seeking safety and refuge in foreign lands. But here in Australia, we are increasingly turning them back to danger or indefinitely detaining them in offshore camps, a policy of deterrence that serves as a warning to anyone who might seek safety in Australia.

Towards the end of Jesus ministry, he teaches his disciples how they are called to live. He calls them to see Jesus in those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who are detained, those who are unwelcome, those who are sick, saying, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Do we see Jesus in 100 children still detained on Nauru? Do we see Jesus in the 500 men still detained on Manus?

Common Grace is a growing movement of Christians seeking to live these words out, to see Christ in those longing for justice, for safety, for welcome, for hope, for dignity and for a future. We believe that every life is precious, that all are created equal, and that the church has a primary role to play in bring justice, compassion, equality and hope to the world – particularly for those who have been left behind.

We are called to solidarity with the least, to minister to the lost, to place ourselves alongside the last. Here, we find Jesus. Here, we find grace. Here, we find hope.

Pray about it

Jesus our Lord, you came to came to us as a vulnerable baby, at immediate risk of death from a king who was meant to serve your Father. May we who seek to follow you, remember your weakness, as much as your glory, that we will know how to act in serving your world. Help us to remember you when we consider the most vulnerable. Teach us to have the same care for them as you do. Let us not be afraid to meet and love all people, as all of humanity is made in your image. Amen.

Go Deeper

What does the knowledge that Jesus was a refugee teach you about people who seek safety? How are we, as ambassadors of Christ, called to respond to people seeking safety? Do you find it hard to see Jesus when you consider the poor, the sick, prisoners and foreigners? What would happen if Christians were known most for our care for these vulnerable people?

Right now, a nationwide campaign is building, calling for the 100+ children (and their families) who are indefinitely detained on Nauru to be brought to safety. More than 1,000 Common Grace supporters have already signed the #KidsOffNauru petition, and as we build the amplify the compassionate voice of the Church we’re praying that a new witness of generosity will be seen in this country. You can sign the petition today, or if you already have you can share the petition so other can too.

Day 7: A house of prayer for all nations

Isaiah 56:6-7
And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him,
to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

Throughout this series, we have seen how the biblical narrative leans towards the outcast, the oppressed, the foreigner, the vulnerable. Through Old Testament and New, we’ve seen God’s people called to generosity, welcome, inclusion – yet getting seriously wrong along the way.

When Israel returned from Exile – an Exile attributed to their rejecting God’s call to justice, mercy and humility (Micah 6:8) – the prophets spoke of what a reconciled community would look like. While the instinct would have been for Israel to retreat to safety, God casts a vision that Israel will call the nations together, particularly those experiencing exclusion, and the temple would become a house of prayer for all the nations.

But incredibly, they again miss the point. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, and entered the temple, he himself quotes this passage as a condemnation of Israel’s rejection of what God was calling them to (Mark 11:15-19).

But what about the church today? Have we heard this call to be a community where the foreigners are welcome, the outcast are embraced, the vulnerable are supported and the persecuted protected? Or have we, too, let this calling slide?

In our communities, refugee families are trying to establish themselves in a new country, having left all they know behind in the hope of finding safety. Will the church be there to support?

On our shores, families desperate for safety, having risked everything, are being turned around and sent back toward the mouth of danger they narrowly escaped. Will the church raise a beautiful protest that calls for welcome, models generosity, and is willing to put our own reputation and comfort on the line for our neighbour?

In offshore processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru, more than 1000 men, women and children remain indefinitely detained – currently with no prospect of finding safety in Australia – their will has been broken, their hope robbed, their future uncertain. Will the church hear God’s heart for these people, will we sit with them in solidarity, rise with them in calling for justice?

We hope throughout this week-long journey through the scriptures you have been challenged and confronted, but not overwhelmed to the point of inaction. We are a community of Christians who are exploring how to generously respond to complex situations, never compromising on the value of all life, and hearing God’s heart for all nations to be welcomed, embraced and included by communities of Christians following the way of Jesus.

So, let’s be the church that hears God’s invitation to beauty, generosity and justice – and let’s put it into action as a movement of Christians boldly loving, humbly serving, and generously responding.

Pray about it

Dear God, you constantly stretch us with your expansive vision for a reconciled humanity. Forgive us when we fail to trust in your plan for us, and retreat into boundary-setting. Christ Jesus, you showed us how to love all people, and to see in each of them the very image of God. You died to liberate us from sin, even though we were the very ones who put you on the Cross. Help us to model that love in our own lives, and to reject attempts to separate people into ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ of your love. Amen.

Go Deeper

Are our doors (and hearts) open or closed to foreigners seeking safety and a new life here? Are we made less or more complete by their presence? What would it mean for us to love as Christ loved, without first worrying about whether the person before us is ‘worthy’?

If you have found this series helpful in your own journey learning about justice for people seeking asylum, we encourage you to share this series on Facebook with some comments about how the series impacted you. As you share your experience, others are invited into the journey, and together we will build a gracious, compassionate Christian voice that speaks beauty, generosity and justice for people seeking safety on our shores.

We'd also love to hear any feedback you had about this series, which you can provide by replying to this email.