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What I learned from Ali.

Web posted on April 21, 2017

Hey Jude!

I met an Afghan refugee last week. He's a Muslim. I like him. And I admire what he's trying to achieve here in Canada. As we talked, without knowing that he was doing so he gave me some important insights into more traditional times, and how far we've left them behind.

Ali (that's not his real name) came to Canada four years ago. He manages a convenience store. (He may be the franchisee, but I'm not sure about that.) I asked him how he likes being in Canada.

It's hard, he says. Because Canada is more prosperous than Afghanistan, he is sometimes able to send money to his parents back home. But he finds that getting ahead here is difficult.

We talked about house prices. Ali wants to buy a house in Guelph, so that he can live and raise his family in the same community where he works. But real estate prices in Guelph are daunting. He could buy something out of town, but what he'd save on the house he'd lose in the commuting. Ali sees both options as lose-lose.

I asked him what it was like back home. Except for the war, he said, they were poor but they were happy. His family, several generations of them, were all together and mutually supportive. I began to feel a nostalgia for a past that many of us have never known.

Ali comes from a traditional society, a society in many ways like that of Abraham, Moses, David, and all the patriarchs. A society where family is foremost. A society where parents actually mentor their children. And where adult children look after their parents, as Ali tries to do - instead of moving back in on mom or dad at age 27.

Ali's concern about house prices led to our talking about how Guelph has become a bedroom community for Toronto, and how modern technology - especially the automobile - has changed our lives so that we no longer live, work, socialize, and recreate as a family, nor do all those things in the same community.

Our technology has made it possible, and our economy seems to have made it necessary, that when children grow up, they also move away. Away for college. Away for jobs. Not just away from their families but also away from the culture and values they grew up with. They see home as "a good place to be from". For Ali, who has two daughters, that is a painful prospect.

As I glimpsed Ali's pain, my mind went back to what little I know of the Middle East. I saw the connection between Ali's culture and the similar culture that informs the Old Testament. I understood (what academics have long recognized) that the norms of traditional Middle Eastern societies, including those in the Old Testament, reflect a culture that values not just the individual but the family and the extended family, with a view to preserving the family's identity, good name, culture, and assets. Which accounts, at least in part, for the Biblical rules about property, inheritance, religion, and sexual relationships.

Of course, Ali and I would not agree on some critical theological issues (if we had discussed such topics) but I can identify with his concerns about family and traditional values. The transportation, communications, and world-wide economy of the past century have been a mixed blessing for us in the West: they've opened up greener pastures far afield, but they've also enabled the fragmenting of kin and faith communities where families and neighbors used to nurture one another and consciously groomed the next generation.

A large part of that fragmentation occurs within the family itself. Google says our national divorce rate is now at 48% (I'm part of that statistic) and the average duration of Canadian marriages is only 14 years (I beat that stat this time). The result is successive cohorts of young adults who themselves eventually become parents but have never known a functional mom-and-dad family, or living in community, in a way that they can pass on to their offspring. At its worst, this fragmentation takes only one or two generations until the offspring have no immediate relatives who have experienced stable family and community relationships.

So these last generations have seen major societal changes, including the shrinking of families and extended families, and the breakdown of functional communities and neighborhoods. We've elected governments that have redefined the family, regard gender identity as fluid, and no longer believe a child needs and deserves a real mom and dad. We have effectively dismantled the natural and divinely intended source of values education, and then we wonder why so many kids never "find themselves", why we're bent on Amusing Ourselves To Death (Neil Postman, 1985), why we're seeing so much anxiety, drug abuse, and suicide, and why we patronize soulless interests whose only motive is the bottom line.

And we wonder why people in Ali's part of the world think we're decadent.

Societal change acquires a momentum, and that change begets even more change as a nation works through its life cycle (see Acts 17:26). We're not going to turn back the clock. So we're faced with the question: What's the best we can do in the circumstances - those of us who profess to follow Jesus?

It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. If that's so, then Christians of an orthodox bent - Catholics, Evangelicals, and Reformed alike - need to find ways to recreate such "villages". Without abandoning those other groups where we live and work and have a gospel mandate, we need also to consider how we can usefully enhance our experience of Christian community. Which means that being the covenant community involves more than just attending Sunday morning assembly.

Here's a topic for congregational discussion: Church as Village and Counter-culture.


Rev Robert Lyon is the assistant at St. Jude, Guelph, a congregation of the Anglican Network in Canada. Robert welcomes your questions and comments, and will be pleased to discuss topics on request. Contact him at nm@bbs42.net. Also check out stjudeguelph.ca
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