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.

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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?

Some words are more important…

The polls are in and the top words banned in 2018 are fourteen overused words to avoid – included this year are “unpack”, “tons”, “drill-down”, and my favorite: “nothing-burger.” The number one vote-getter is “fake news.” Last year’s was “so” as in “I am so tired of lists.”

As we “off-board” last year and “on-board” 2018, it seems everyone is trying to put words to the year almost gone, maybe thinking what they might need to “walk back” or even “double down” on from the year –  and, or course, they “seeking traction” and are trying to “wrap their heads around” the coming months. I better stop now.

Some words are more important than others. Jesus came back to certain phrases to help us remember the important stuff. “Whoever has ears to hear, let him listen.” “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you” and it’s KJV companion, “Verily, verily, I say to unto you.” But, at the top of the list is ” The kingdom of heaven (or God) is like…”

Jesus would then attach to this phrase something totally, well, common. Relatable. A farmer, or a seed, or a net, or yeast, or a homeowner, or a wedding party.

My first thoughts about the “kingdom of heaven” is to look up, to the future, to eternity. And certainly eternity and heaven are within the stories Jesus told about the kingdom. But what we do here and now is kingdom stuff, too.

  • The kingdom of heaven is like the the woman who makes coffee for her friends so they can talk about Jesus around her table.
  • The kingdom of heaven is like the builder who hires and treats his workers with honor so they will see Jesus in his life.
  • The kingdom of heaven is like the the living room filled with people from different countries, languages, colors, and stories whose lives have been changed by the Savior.
  • The kingdom of heaven is like… (On 1/2/2018, let’s leave a blank and see how we can fill it in each day by inviting the common things in our life to connect and display the supernatural acts of God.)

Call it a “paradigm shift” or an “adjusted grid” – Perhaps 2018 is the year that I will ask how the common, the relatable things in my life, can show others what the kingdom of heaven is like.

For the King – Rick

P.S. My pastor and friend in Myrtle Beach, Tim Holt, has said more than once that the Kingdom is present when the King gets His way.

P.P.S. (List provided by Lake Superior State University – they’ve offered this list for decades! https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/12/31/2018-banned-words/993549001/)

All Mission Supporters are not created equal…

From someone on the field who has some wonderful missional people in my life, I have learned to live by grace when it comes to the weighing the excitement people share about missions. (Please read on and don’t judge me by the title.)

  • Some are genuinely passionate to see the church go to the nations – after all, in more nations than not, a McDonald’s full of people would not have one solitary evangelical Christ-follower (other than you) if you walked in.
  • Some are excited for us that we are going on the adventure. And doing so for God.
  • Some look incredulously at us and ask, “what’s that all about”. In the words of my late father-in-law, many think, “I ain’t left nothing over there.”
  • And some wish they could go, want to go, would try to go if they could find the door opening. I can see it in their eyes. They want to be a part of the adventure.

So, how does this translate into being a mission supporter? And are they created, or does missional passion emerge?

Perhaps, to move further down this path, a quick recap of the needs missionaries have might help with perspective:

Food, transportation, housing, clothing, ministry resources, medical and dental care, the occasional vacation or conference – and since I live in Italy, a regular measure of coffee. Add to this short-term teams to come and help, church rent, Bibles, project resources, and special ministry funds for reaching out to the different kinds of needs. (I don’t know a missionary yet who is asking for the moon.)

Mission supporters come in all shapes and sizes. And God, somehow, matches us mission supporters with these needs.

I know fixed income Christians who give regularly beyond their tithe. I’ve met reasonably educated and employed church-goers who give up things they’ve earned the right to spend their resources on so they can give to multiple missional causes. Some of my friends are highly educated, highly skilled, and/or blessed with great wealth, and they strategically look for and give to mission needs. I even have retired friends who could be on the back nine who have reinvented their skills in business so they can give all the profits to Kingdom causes.

Then, how can each of us nurture our lives so we can be more missional?

  1. Overestimate … each moment of prayer for missions. Most of us, honestly, low-ball our impact in the prayer closet. We just don’t “feel” we are making a difference. God says otherwise. When we pray, we change and we connect God’s purposes and resources to those for whom we pray.
  2. Reposition … the heart. We can get pretty wrapped up in what’s before us, and forget what is happening across the street or around the globe. Ask God for an upward love – on Him, and an outward love – for the world, and for specific cultures and people. Jesus said the heart resides with what we value.
  3. Lavishly spend … time with missional people. Find ways to get “in the way” – get into the lives of missionaries. Learn about their nations. Find ways to surprise them with your presence and word of encouragement.
  4. Turn up the heat … on giving and going. Your heart follows your bank account. My pastor from Crossroads Church in Newnan taught me this in relation to giving. If you don’t give at all, give some to someone. If you don’t give regularly, give monthly to someone. If you don’t give a percentage, begin to give a specific portion. Make your tithe count in your church and strategic giving count to missional causes.

It’s very true that “disciples are made, not born”* and the same is true of mission supporters. We are all (yes, this missionary is a missionary supporter, too) on the way to becoming better mission supporters. God, the God of The Mission** to save our world, is working it in us.

From the field – Rick

* Two disciple-makers, Howard Hendricks and Walt Henrichsen, wrote Disciples are Made not Born years ago. Still an awesome book to read. The premise: each of us as Christ-followers have the potential to change our world, but we need to make the choices to be a disciples and find others who can pour into our lives and into whom we can pour into theirs. (Another shout out to Ken Adams, pastor of Crossroads Church Newnan GA – we are called to “be and build disciples of Christ.)

** I hear at Christmas time how Jesus came into the world as an immigrant (the trek to Egypt is the nod this claim gives). In reality, He was missional in the Advent – He came to declare and be Good News: the Kingdom of God is at hand (Isaiah 61, Luke 4, John 3).

It helps to point…

My wife has, for years, accused me of running out of words before the day ends. I get 3000 words, no less, no more, and none bankable. According to her. If I use them up, she can’t pry more than a syllable from me in the evening. I wonder if I work this way.

The more important question is: do I get 3000 in English, and 3000 in Italian? And if I screw up the Italian words (it can happen), do I get a redo?

Someone gave me a bike a few days ago. The chain was off, no lights, and one side of the gears was wonky. A new bicycle mechanic hung out his shingle two blocks down just last week, so I rolled into his shop yesterday. Disclaimers here:

#1 – I had probably used up all my Italian words at Monday’s Italian class (and I needed to borrow from tomorrow for the Bible study I led that Tuesday night (it’s complicated.)

#2 – I don’t speak “bicycle.” These are words that haven’t come up between “Piacere. Mi chiamo Rick” and “Dov’e’ il bagno.

#3 – My trusty standby – “Parli Inglese?” didn’t work on this 70-year-old bike mechanic.

Il Maestro di Biciclette” wheeled it into his back room, hung it on the shop rack. He tugged me over to watch. He pointed. I only understood three words (out of at least 300) – “catena ha caduto” or “the chain has fallen.” He pointed.

Then he tinkered with the gears on the right. After another 300 words, I heard “buona.” He pointed. I smiled, “funziona?” Back at me, “Si.”

He wiggled the left gears. He pointed. Another torrent and I heard “rotto” (I remember, rotten, for “broke.”) I grimaced, “non funziona?” “Si.”

After he worked some magic with the chain, he pulled it down from the rack. I asked him if it was a good bike. He pointed. He said, okay, but it’s older than me. We laughed together. I asked, “how much?” (I’m in the “Italian zone” by now.) He ignored me and handed it off. And I pedaled away toward the next challenge.

I’m glad to learn “catena e’ caduto” – reminds me that, for the Christian, the chains have fallen, they are “rotto” (in a good way.)

Two “take-aways” – it helps to point, and Italian men are gracious – and they get more than 3000 words.

Alla prossima volta,

Rick

Nowhere to go

Not usually the poet, but Susan and I have spent extra time in praying and seeking God here at the end of our first year serving in Padova, Italy. The below has come from our life this first year. (The Apostle wrote “to live is Christ.” Any other “thing” that might gain our life’s devotion will disappoint. He also wrote “to die is gain.” Anything we live for we lose, except Christ Jesus – we gain Him!)

To follow, follow you – nowhere to go but to follow you.

You oh God, you have hidden me in the place prepared for eternity.

To you, you God, I have hidden your truth where nothing can disparage me.

May the steps I take lead to holiness

May the sins I have drive me to my knees

Let my lips rejoice when I face my fears

Let my heart embrace every truth I dare

To follow, follow you – nowhere to go but to follow you.

You oh God, you have hidden me in the place prepared for eternity.

To you, you God, I have hidden your truth where nothing can disparage me.

For you are the Holy One, you are my cup

You are the sacrifice poured out for me

You are the Promise, You are the Righteous One

Absolute faithfulness, eternally.

For you are my holiness, you are my cup

You are my fullness, poured into me

You are the Promise, You overflow in me

Faithfully filling me, today and always.

To follow, follow you – nowhere to go but to follow you.

You oh God, you have hidden me in the place prepared for eternity.

To you, you God, I have hid your truth where nothing can disparage me.

May the steps I take lead to holiness

May the sins I have drive me to my knees

Let my lips rejoice when I face my fears

Let my heart embrace every truth I dare

(Quando vado, mi guida alla santita’

Quando ho peccato, mi prendi all’ gnicchocci

Quando io gioisco, la mia paura spedì

Quando io ti e braccio, dai mi coraggio

Tu, o Dio, sei mi stato secreto dove e’ l’eternita’

A te, o Dio, ho segreto tua verita’ dove non può essere rubata)

One of these things is not like the others…

Since moving to Italy, I have noticed how easily it is to take on the the mantle of fault-finder. Granted, it seems that sometimes our new culture collectively looks askance at anything or anyone that diverges from their own. And mostly in a negative light. So, this has got me thinking.

How can I guard my eyes from focusing on the “big negative” among all the positives around me? If I only find what’s wrong, talk about what ought to change, or get consumed by the one thing I don’t prefer – then, I’ll miss out on all that’s beautiful and good and astounding and rich.

Here’s an example: we have a lot of immigrants and refugees in Padua. A half-IMG_3830million live in our region (that’s the legal ones), and that’s a very visible part of the stuff that goes on in the city – buses, trams, clinics, parks and street corners.

I can choose to see them different negatively (how they act, talk, dress, interact, etc.) or I can see the beauty (in how they act, talk, dress, interact, etc.)

My wife is my tutor in this. We were standing at the train station bus stop surrounded by immigrants and refugees. And I got frustrated with one who was… well, just in my way. Susan says to her, “the color of your scarf is beautiful.” Simple. But the most beautiful conversation followed. I was dumbstruck.

We got on the bus and we were completely surrounded by Africans. It only took a few minutes to realize everyone on the bus was on the way home from a church meeting on prayer. It was an experience that shifted my grid, perhaps for good.

All the good, beautiful, gracious, astounding, and rich around me can shout down the one thing I might find negative. If I’ll take time to listen.

Listening in the city – Rick

No Muck, no Miracle

I grew up two blocks from the famous “Grand Strand” of the South Carolina beaches, and just across our street stretched a long finger of marsh from the tides toward the inland highway. Its where we hunted for small bait (we called them fiddler crabs, since they “fiddled” their way sideways across the sand). I remember stepping into the mushy, wet sands and sinking down past my ankles. I can still hear the sucking sounds as I dislodged my feet from the muck! (My brothers, always encouraging, informed me there were hidden stretches of quicksand nearby waiting to gobble little boys whole.)

The psalmist writes that he found himself in “the slimy pit” and waited patiently for God’s clear path toward a firm footing (and everyone knows from the movies never to struggle in quicksand since it makes for a speedier demise.) He was stuck in the “mud and the mire” with no footing below and no way forward. And he did what any of us would do – he cried out, “help!”

We love the promises! When God gives a promise in the Bible, it nearly always is in the context of dire circumstances. Try a search on Top 10 promises and read them in context. God promises he will be near, that he never changes, he will strengthen us, uphold us, bless the work we do, save us, pour out his grace, and give us wisdom. The promises are truth, yes, but they are delivered in the quicksand of loneliness, pain, threats, fear, sin, hopelessness, and grief.

Today, and all week, my prayers have turned to a family I knew, worshiped with, and served alongside back in the states. The godly couple stood strong as an example of servanthood, leadership, and self-sacrifice. And they were lost to a careless driver’s bad choices this week. And there are kids, friends, church family, and more left behind.

In our hurt and in our prayers, we ask God to hear the cries that arise from the slow murkiness of grief. We ask him to provide a moment of firm footing in the midst of the swirl of questions. We ask Jesus to stretch out his hand and pull His kids back up onto the Rock.

It’s interesting what happens when the psalmist finds his footing in the Lord. Not only does he stand firm, but he breaks into song. Not a song from the canon of worship already learned and enjoyed. But, one that brings new comprehension of how much God cares and how near he is. It’s a new song, fresh from the experience of God’s provision and presence. And, through it all, as we wait, as we cry out, and we reach out for his presence, the psalmist says “many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.”

On solid rock.

Now that I’m 60 – what am I committed to:

There is something about entering a “new decade of years” that calls me to reconcile my experience with my values. As a reminder to myself more than anyone else, I am committed more than ever…

…to worshiping and serving Christ Jesus increasingly with my gifts, skills, time, and resources.

…to loving and honoring my wife till death separates us.

…to encouraging and influencing my son and daughters (and grandkids, when they show up for God’s purposes) toward loving and serving God with their lives.

…to loving what God says He is in love with: the lost, the broken, the lonely, the refugee, the hurting, the confused, the poor, the homeless, the enslaved, the imprisoned.

… to loving and lifting up the church local and global through my prayer, encouragement, time, presence and resources.

…to doing life with a small group of men and women for mutual encouragement, personal growth, and lifestyle ministry.

…to meeting with 2-3 men for discipleship on a regular basis to stay pure, live on target with my promises, and encourage each other toward a fruitful Christian life.

…to living a richer and riskier life in my finishing years by saying yes to each opportunity to give myself away, pour into others, explore new relationships, and influence my world toward Christ.

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