“… I’ve never seen so many…”

When the doctors and their team working in Liberia during the height of the 2014 Ebola epidemic saw the damage the disease caused, one reportedly said “I’ve never seen so many bodies.” One doctor was in charge of gathering and disposing of those who died from the disease; he and his team worked tirelessly to serve the Liberians by helping them through the collection and, with a respectful process, cremation of their dead.

Stephen Rowden was a first time volunteer with Doctors without Borders; his team processed between 10 and 25 cremations a day in Monrovia as the work sought to contain the epidemic to the region. He said his team of 36 have shown no signs of the disease even though they worked in such proximity to the dangers of the contagion.

When ask about his motivation, Dr. Rowden confessed that he is “a practicing Christian” who finds support and “strength from his faith and family.”

Since the first centuries of Christianity, those who follow Christ run toward the danger, the tragedy, the hurt… even the contagion, while most flee. From the Antonine Plague in the mid-100’s that wipe nearly 25% of the Roman Empire into eternity and those many epidemics that followed, Christ-followers sought to stay and help and serve…and suffer, in order to live a life that gives credit to the Good News and the love and power of God.

While many might say that Christianity was established in the empire because of edits, it really spread as a revolution of love, sacrifice and suffering. We run toward the need, even if the rest are running away.

Dr. Rowden captures this kind of faith through his actions.

Live sacrificially,

Rick

(Thanks to a great NPR interview by  at https://www.npr.org/2014/10/09/354890862/in-collecting-and-cremating-ebola-victims-a-grim-public-service and Baker Book called Restoring All Things: God’s Audacious Plan to Change the World through Everyday People by Stonestreet and Smith.)

 

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Do I know you?

I’m seeing doppelgangers.  Every time I go out, at least the past few days, I’ve seen people I know.  Yesterday, I saw Danny DeVito. Today, I saw Robb, a guy who went with me on my first Italy mission trip (he was a clown, really, literally, a clown – but today, he was normal.)

My step-mother-in-law showed up a lot in the piazzas of Padova. But, then again, there are a lot of little old ladies (sorry, Eleanor) in Italy. They are outspoken. I had one get nose-to-chin with me for carrying shopping bags home one Sunday. She said her piece fast and with many gestures and grimaces. I think she told me it was a holy day and I couldn’t shop for more than one bag full (I had two.)

This doppelganger issue must mean something. I miss home. And people. Don’t get me wrong; I love my city and the people we get to meet with and share life with. The work with our new Fellowship is invigorating. But, I hit a spot in my year where I need my culture and my people.

It means something else, too. Cultures, languages, habits, gestures, colors and shades, all may be very different; still, we’re the same in far many ways than exterior admits. We all need respect, acceptance, love, forgiveness, kindness, and especially a person who will listen.

I’ve got to go – I think I just saw Abe Vigoda.

Still Listening,

Rick

Some people say I have a doppelganger (I’m not so sure):

           

Thinking Globally…

We are committed to building relationships and inviting God’s Kingdom to be present and real in lives here in Italy. We stay in touch with friends from all over Italy, we chat with our student friends from the Bible College, and we pray for the churches that God will do amazing things in Torino, Roma, Milano, Bologna, Venezia, Verona, Bari, Palermo, and beyond!

  • We also stay connected with students (and others) who are from other cultures. We met with our Tun1si@n friend for pizza last week; she is “on the way” to discovering Jesus. We do online devotions with our Madagascar friends every day. They are growing in love with Jesus. Each day is a chance to do life with them.
  • When this journey in Italy began nearly two years ago, we asked (and continue to ask) the Holy Spirit to open doors to serve from Italy and into other nations. On Easter weekend, Susan and I will join Doug and Joan Dorman and several “catalyst” thinkers who are poised to join the movement we believe God is creating among the many European nations who have, somewhere along the way, abandoned Christian discipleship. Our goal is to expand our influence in making disciples who will increase their influence by multiplying disciples.

Please pray for this key meeting in Geneva with leaders from several countries that we will hear what the Spirit is saying. Pray also for N. and P. (our Malagasy friends, and for M. our friend from Tun1si@.

Living the City Life…

How would you change your life if you found yourself in a city of 300,000 people from multiple cultures who speak different languages – and 1/3 of them are either students, faculty, or immigrants & refugees? Here’s what we prioritize:

  • Invest time intentionally. We shop mostly the same stores so we can see the same faces and be in their lives. Cristina served us pizza last night – we know her kids and some of her life dreams. We now have a relationship over which we can build a bridge to the Gospel.
  • Invite and engage. In April, our Christian Dance School friends from V.O.W. will visit us for cultural and missional work (dance in the piazza, teach dance to children, visit the hospital children’s care wing, as well as outreaches to internationals and refugees. We invite students to visit and live with us for 3 weeks to 3 months for ministry, discipleship, engage in a mission.  We also invite teams of 4-14 people to come for 7-14 days for short-term mission work.  (If you are interested in Mentorship or Short-term Missions, let’s begin the conversation!)
  • Take it to new levels when we can. This week, we (meaning Susan) had the bright idea (and brilliant) to decorate our apartment building foyer for Giornata di San Valentino. Colors, hearts, streamers, signs, and the name of each resident with a chocolate heart greeted each person here when they walked in or out the next day. And we build on our relationships. Yesterday, the check-out person at our closest grocer asked us why we moved to Padova or even to Italy. We got to share with her and talk about why we are here. And we take the conversations deeper.

So, now you can pray for us: that doors open when we knock, that we know when and how to take the conversations to new levels, and that we can build bridges to the Good News about Jesus.

A Local Focus…

We changed lanes recently in a major way (some of you know this or read about it in Rick’s blog) – we are now worshiping and serving with the leadership and pastors at International Christian Fellowship (ICF).* Additionally, we worship as often as we can in the evening at the Italian Baptist Church (IBC). This stretches our ministry impact with immigrants, refugees and the academic community broader than ever before in our city of 300,000!

  • (From both of us). We get to “hang out”  (and lead the Bible study on occasion) with the students at The Gathering. Last week, there were 15 different nationalities and we treated them to an American dinner.) We’re both planning how best to help them reach their friends at the university.
  • (From Susan). I was invited to lead worship at the Giornata di San Valentino women’s event after word got out I play guitar and sing (I’m blaming Rick). I enjoy the opportunity to encourage women from multiple cultures in their walk with their husbands and their pursuit of Christ.
  • (From Rick). I have become a fill-in guitarist on Sunday mornings with the worship band. More importantly, I am helping to develop the discipleship strategy and curriculum for new believers and newcomers for ICF.

*(From both of us). Many of you know that, when we first moved to Padova, we began serving and worshiping with a small church called Calvary Chapel-Padova (we were number 10 and 11 on our first worship service with them.) After 1 1/2 years with our friends at Calvary Chapel, and after much prayer and counsel with mentors, pastors, and friends, we determined our work there had stretched beyond the place where we could encourage and contribute to growth and success at CC-Padova. We love and treasure our friends there and stay in touch however we can. We also stay solidly committed to our local church community.

Changing Lanes and Staying the Course

One of my favorite teachers is Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa Pastor Brian Brodersen. I respect how he and his church pour into missions as if the Great Commission was given directly to him and his team. And that they hold to the never-changing Truth of the Scripture while expecting God to do a new and fresh work today. He and his church are a good example of what it means to be missional.

In a recent message here in Europe, he noted that we each are to follow our calling with energy, wisely and with a clear direction –  he likened it to staying the course in the “lane God has chosen for us.” That lane gives us guidance and intentionality, and a respect for those in other lanes following hard after God, too. We work better together trusting God’s work in each others’ lives – no judgment and no disparaging, but prayerful honoring since, after all, it is God’s work.

But, we also should know that, at some point, we will sense it is time to “change lanes.” And we can have one of two responses.

At some point, we may feel the urge to change lanes because we find the going difficult. It could be pressure from others, conflict in relationships, lack of measurable progress (which can easily happen on the mission field), or outright failure or major setbacks. In this instance, it’s best to first take the faith lesson that difficulty teaches and stay the course. This is probably the hardest to do, and to urge others to do with authenticity. It’s painful. And it seems that light and hope for God’s voice are furthest away.

But in another point, God will nudge us to consider “changing lanes”: we sense it will please Him, we gather that it will point to and honor His wisdom, and perhaps the stepping out of one lane shows us how God has been nudging us into another lane. It could be that serving and ministry is going great, or we may be struggling. We still sense before us an obedient step toward something new or different. The calling hasn’t changed, the location or mode perhaps has.

It’s a good idea to listen and step toward the new lane, even if it means leaving another lane behind.

In Italy, we’ve chosen to not have a car. I blame it on the cost; the truth is, I scare my wife when I drive in Italy. So, no car for now.

But when we drive and need to change lanes, we make sure we do three things: 1) communicate, 2) keep the pace, and 3) clear the lane. Same with “changing lanes” in missions or ministry:

  • As much as it depends on me, I need to send clear signals. I seek to communicate, to meet, to call, to follow up in writing, and make sure my signal in changing lanes is understood.
  • As much as I can, I need to keep my speed for the new lane. Even though it may be tempting to slow down in the work, I need to keep the pace as I move into the new lane. Even if responsibilities change (which they likely will), keep reading, keep listening, keep connecting, keep meeting, keep praying – in truth, extra speed in some of these areas will help the lane change succeed.
  • As much as it depends on me, leave the lane clean and clear – hand off a clean slate for those who will pick up where you left off. The previous lane had ministry, roles, relationships, and expectations. Few of us are irreplaceable. Give room for closure to roles and expectations (even the best of ministry relationships has varied expectations.) Carefully handle relationships from the new lane that have been important (you can’t change another’s lane for them.)

Some may have guessed or already know. Susan and I have “changed lanes.” We closed out a 1 1/2 year of working alongside the Padova Calvary Chapel. We have good friends and frequent reminders to pray because of our journey with the pastor and his wife along with the people who have come in and out of our experience there. But, we sensed last year that we needed to “change lanes” and move out so we could move toward.

For those who wonder, we have begun worshiping in Italian on Sunday nights at a Baptist fellowship and investing in an International Fellowship at other times. We continue to meet with internationals and students, look for ways to reach out to our city, and above all, pray, study, listen, and knock on doors and build bridges so that the Gospel of truth, peace and compassion will connect others to the Kingdom of God who loves them.

From a “new lane” – Rick

 

The word for the year…anonymity

A friend of ours planned a tour of Italian museums and recalled afterward that, while there were some awe inspiring artists –Caravaggio, Giotto, Tintoretto – the favorite by far was an “unknown” whose art was everywhere, very diverse, and over the nameplate of Sconosciuto.

My wife and I just finished reading through the Bible in a Year (on the YouVersion app under As it Happened – we recommend it for its chronological order). Near the end of our journey through the Bible, we read Hebrews, a book written to next-gen Jewish followers of Jesus. In the famous “Hall of Faith” chapter, the writer recounts the faith (and fate) of well-known Hebrew heroes. He also cites the unwavering faith of a crowd of believers who stood firm, often to the death, in their belief that God is worth it all. They are anonymous, at least on this side of heaven.

I have discovered that the biggest fear I’ve faced for years is anonymity – call it a fear of obscurity or becoming unknown, unseen, or unheard – but, until recently, this fear has been an overlooked but active drive in my life.

I know I can acknowledge this, and choose to turn from this fear … and embrace the privilege of obscurity.

My word of guidance for 2019 is Anonymity.

A university library in England maintains a seven-section archive of journals, pictures, magazines, and records related to Chinese missions over the past 150 years. When the first (and current) Chinese president of China Inland Missions, long-since renamed Overseas Mission Fellowship, walked into one of the rooms housing these records, he was overcome by the magnitude of seemingly anonymous people who had given their lives for his country-people, many martyrs for the Gospel of Jesus.

Dr. Fung told this story to students attending the missional conference Urbana ’09 (you can hear his story in the interview online) that, as he scan through the extensive lists, journals and pictures, he was reminded that the work of evangelism is done by people willing to live without a desire for fame, glory, and recognition.

When John the Baptizer saw Jesus gaining attention, he was asked by a somewhat envious follower what he should do. His response is timely and timeless: “Jesus must increase; I must decrease.”

In my case, the fear of anonymity has been too frequently a companion. I want Jesus to be enthroned, but I want a chair close by near the right side.

It has guided decisions. I’ve chosen worry and delayed action and played it safe so I wouldn’t look bad. And usually looked bad anyway.

It has silenced conversations. I’ve talked myself out of conversations I should have had or introductions to Jesus I should have made so I could protect my insecure reputation. And stayed insecure.

It has hidden love. I’ve left too many relationships lingering on the surface because I either didn’t want to know or chose not to be known. And loved less by doing so.

Today, careers are made by being seen, heard, photographed, liked, shared, hearted, retweeted, and reposted. Fame is even possible by taking the stage “anonymously.”  Artists hide their identity behind walls, bags, masks, and pseudonyms and “stay famously in the dark” to become celebrità oscura – Sia, HER, Elena Ferrante, Daft Punk, Banksy.

The most visible evidence of following Jesus is that I love in greater and greater measure. And the greatest measurement of love is sacrifice, putting others above myself, pushing others up and staying below the stage lights, decreasing so Jesus will be famous. He says He sees what’s done secretly and perhaps that’s more than enough recognition.

Maybe this year will produce such a beautiful work of truth and healing and compassion that anyone who sees it will know it was the hand of the Master Artist Who crafted it. I will decide more selflessly. Speak more freely and compassionately. Love without fear or shame.  I expect to be tempted to pick up a brush every now and then and offer to script my name into the corner. But, it’s my desire that it remain His work under the name plate of Sconosciuto.

In my own words,

Rick

P.S. I know it ironic to blog about anonymity. I like to know my words matter. And I’ll keep working on my motivations.

P.P.S. Conosciuto means “known.” Scononsciuto means “unknown.”

Spiritual renewal in unlikely places

The tiled image was of a rooster and a turtle fighting it out, the rooster in frozen “near victory.” The entire basilica floor was tiled in mosaic – one inch pieces or less – that brought spiritual truths out of normal scenes of life. Baskets of bread and wine. Peacocks. A lamb with staff. Even a hippogriff (for you HP fans.)

Aquileia was one of the largest cities in Europe around 100 AD. Christianity had already begun to thrive in the international milieu of this port (it may have been Mark the Gospel-writer who first came to this city across the Adriatic from the Balkan peninsula.)

But it wasn’t until 313, and the Edict of Milan, that Christians could worship legally. Within five years, the first worship center and baptism room (yes, a full set of rooms for baptism) began. Along with what is now the largest modern example Christian mosaic art. It was art, but they mainly needed a floor that would stand up to the baptism waters (yes, they immersed), and the foot traffic of fishermen, Roman home owners, street peddlers, and senators.

My wife (Susan) and I visited Aquileia for an anniversary day trip. In this ancient church, we found beauty. I found renewal.

Christianity remained simple in this town – it was just a couple of centuries after the last Apostle died – and the truths of the Gospel found life in the symbols. God’s Kingdom is bounty – baskets of bread and wine. God is a lamb who cares for his children like little lambs.

Even the rooster (a metaphor for the dawn and light) gets the victory over the turtle (who always hid himself in darkness). In the Kingdom, light prevails but with the threat of darkness at the ready.

Near the altar, embedded in the floor are the Greek letters I-X-T-H-Y-S. The tiles declare Jesus-Christ-God’s-Son-Savior – and also introduce an extended theme of fishing, casting nets, enjoying the bounty of the sea (and a three-part scene of Jonah tossed to the sea monster, puked back onto the shore, and naked and unashamed in the care of his God).

It’s no wonder the largest scene is fishing – I’m certainly a fan – but, this city drew it’s physical existence from the gifts God gave them from the deep.

The symbolism is even more important for Christ-followers. There are fish needing to be caught. We are fishermen. And the Kingdom is the net. Simple. No grey areas here. It’s what Christians do because it’s what we are.

Within 100 years, the church was remodeled (though they kept the mosaics) and dedicated to the adoration of the Virgin Mary and the exultation of two saints (who gave their lives in for the Good News under Nero.) Those who would have chosen, if they could, to remain off-stage and point the praise the Jesus, became central. And it got complicated.

“God chose the foolish things in the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things in the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised thing – and things that are not – to nullify the things are are, so that no one may boast before Him.”

The less sophisticated, the better. And I found renewal and beauty when faith was simpler.

Seeing walls come down

We traveled the northern Italy city of Pordenone for church on La Festa della Momma. The worship was good. A guest preached, and the study was sound. But, it was our lunch afterward that totally ignited my faith again.

Our good friend, Adelina, who also has led in the Padova University Bible Study, invited us to lunch. At her home. With her mom and dad. Who speak no English.

The next three hours were amazing, and not just because of the pasta, baked swordfish, and roasted sweet potatoes (and dessert.)

Nello and Stela migrated to Italy in 1998, but not before being a part of the movement of Christian young people that led to the wall coming down between the East and the West. George recounted how thousands of Romanians protested along the tram lines. When the water cannons came, and the arrests were made, thousands more replaced them.

What led to the Romanian Revolution (the only violent one – since the soldiers fired into the crowds at will – as the walls came down in Europe in December 1989) started when the government tried to oust an evangelical pastor from his flat. To protect him, hundreds and then thousands, encircled the pastor’s home. They sang hymns of worship and prayed throughout the night and into the coming days.

The crowds grew and the spark of freedom in worship became a flame.

When the water cannons reappeared, the crowd dismantled them and threw the pieces into the river. By now, the protest was city-wide and, within a week, led to a full regime change.

Nello recalled that the Christian faith was prominent in his Romanian culture, instrumental leading up to the Revolution, and grew even more so afterwards. He said that, in the persecution and suppression, faith grew vibrantly. But, now that there isn’t the “pressure” faith tends to be less important.

Still, he said that there were likely 40-50% of the nation who professed Jesus as Lord. More than any other nation in Europe.

Years ago, I remember watching the Romanians as they protested and marched to gain freedom to live, speak, work, own property, and worship. It was peaceful for the most, until the soldiers came to stop this march toward freedom.

But, on Mother’s Day, I met a man who had lived it, knew those who went to prison, and saw the wall come down.

The amazing thing of the whole story? It was worship of the Living God and love for a pastor that took out the first of the cold concrete of the dividing walls.

Did Jesus have a mission statement?

OK – here’s a poll for those who want to voice a position. Did Jesus have a mission statement? If so, is it a verse? Or an action? Or did someone else state it for Him?

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