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.

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,


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

An Argument for Higher Education

College is the place you go to learn to pronounce things. Flaubert (Flo-bear), Post-modernity (post-moe-dear-nit-tea), etc. It’s important to sound important; and academic to be in academia (Akku-dame-yah).

That’s why I didn’t do well with Italian. I never sounded like I was intelligent, academic, or important. Most of my Italian pulled smiles and nods from Italians, at least until I turned around. Then it was guffaws.

Example: When I hear “bagna cauda” (a culturally-rich, hot dipping sauce rich in garlic), I hear “hot bathroom” (bagno=bathroom; caldo=hot). An Italian friend asked me: “tu piace la bagna cauda?”  I had a ten minutes conversation in Italian about how I love a warm bathroom and a hot bath.  He smiled and nodded. From across the room, I heard guffaws from several Italians.

Learning to hear and repeat (pronounce) is important. This is why we think the news reports from Stephen Colbert (C0e-bare) is incredibly funny. And G.W. Bush. And Al Gore. All educated savants (Saw-vaws). Our vocabulary (and lexicon) are richer and more expansive.

So, I say: Keep the halls of high education open. And keep attending college. We need more people who look smart. And here’s to hot bathrooms!


Come and get me, come and get me…

I’m not sure it’s exactly a mathematical formula, but the closer we get to “old-ness” the deeper is our longing for eternity. Things that taste like heaven remind me that’s where I’m supposed to dine some day. Things that hint of eternity nudge me to think how unsatisfying it is “down here.” When God’s Kingdom flashes through the dark and touches me or someone I pray for, I’m drawn toward that brilliance, if just for a moment.

Susan and I watched “City Slicker 2” a few days ago. Setting aside all the vignettes for the stars (Lovitz’s impersonation of Rainman, Crystal’s conversation with the cow on the jogging path, etc.) the whole story is Billy Crystal’s consummate self-centeredness set against the total focus of Jack Palance’s character toward “getting Curly’s gold.” At one point, Palance’s hungry gaze looks over the wilderness and hears the gold calling, “come and get me.” It’s a frightening look he gives to the character: a man possessed by the big fever for gold.

I need an impassioned longing for real treasure! Not “Curly’s gold” but the stuff of heaven. And I need to accept that God passionately loves me. His love for me is totally full-time – no momentary flash of “I like Rick.” He loves me (and you, if you’ve chosen to believe how far He stretched to rescue you) with unrestrained passion.

Jesus was moving on in his mission with his followers, heading for death, looking toward the resurrection and the new way of relating to those He calls. He says to his loved ones on the week of his execution:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” (John 14:1-3)

So, if you are troubled by the trouble? Trust that God has you life in the safe cup of his hand. If you feel the wonder when His eternity flashed into our time-consumed existence? He has a place beyond time that fits you perfectly – it’s under construction just like you are. Do you have a longing for knowing Him more intimately? Trust me: your longing to be with Him is only a smattering compared to His longing to have you with Him always. He longs to “come and get you (and me.)”

Eternally for Him


Learning from The 70’s

Every time I enter my “year of birth” in a web form, I’m reminded that my life spans seven decades! That doesn’t mean I’m 70+ years old, but as a child of parents from The Greatest Generation and born in the ’50’s, I’ve “rung in” my share of decades.

One of those decades was The ’70’s – a pivotal discovery time for a lot of reasons.  Maybe the most important is that I learned what not to do. For instance, don’t try to run in 3 1/2 inch disco stacks. Some body part will get hurt. Or no matter how proud you are of it, nobody really cares who paints your senior class year on a road or bridge. And don’t drive 95 miles an hour to get back to school from a mid-morning coca-cola and honey bun run, if you own a Pinto. Yes, you know who you are!

Here’s the big one I learned. What not to chase! In the ’70’s, we had a lot of options to spend our lives doing, public and private. Some were a waste; others earned money, a fleeting influence, or a name on a street; while other options left deposits of eternity in others’ lives.  I was a young, struggling follower of Jesus in the early ’70’s when God captivated me with His undeniable truth and unexplainable compassion for me. And it followed that, if he love me (an average invisible teenager with issues) he loved others… around me and around the globe. It knocked me into a new orbit, with Jesus at the center.

Last week, I attended a party at Seacoast Vineyard Church in Myrtle Beach that focused on celebrating The ’70’s. It was a real blast from the past, and gave me a taste of what my church friends looked (and acted) like a few decades back. There was even a disco ball with the lights chasing around the room. And it left me thinking about today, and how I’m different because of that decade.

Matthew records what Jesus said about what to chase and what not to chase:

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’  These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.  Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT)

The ’70’s legacy? Chase the King and His Kingdom, trust God for the stuff of life, and above all don’t drive your Pinto over 35 mph.

Pursuing the Kingdom -Rick

Me and Zumba

We (my wife, Susan, and I) joined a Zumba class last week. For those of you who have yet to be swept off your feet by the “rhythms of the conga beat,” Zumba is a dance-aerobics workout that forces non-dancers to move feet, hips and arms all together in a semblance of organized pattern. At least, that’s my take on it’s main purpose.

Yesterday’s instructor was a “fill-in” in many ways. She has been doing Zumba a long, long time, yet still could in many ways “shake her groove thang.” She promised us all a fun time.

She also promised, as soon as she saw me (the man in the class) that we would do a special song for the men (read: man, singular, though a couple of others rescued me before that special song.)

By now, we had danced to a latin “rock around the clock,” smoozed through a mysterious song about eyes, jumped around to the copa cabana, and jiggled our way through a Spanish song that talked about shaking our “huppa-bubba-bubba” or something like that.

Then she called me (and the two other victims) up to the front. It should be clarified here that we are really not in a Zumba class. Ours is called Zumba Gold… I think because the members are in their golden years, or perhaps because more of our body parts are  made of metal (though that should be called Zumba Titanium.)

Our instructor had us face the crowd of, what looked like eager grannies (surreal) who seemed to know what was coming our way (we were clueless.) The beat started – a latin-india influenced song… and we moved side to side waving our arms in syncopation first beside and then in front of us. Then it happened. The full force of women danced toward us waving their arms seductively at us, closer and closer (like a Busby Berkley moment.) The last move was a punctuation of three side hip thrusts (with much force.)

It was a brief song that seemed to last forever. Some had fun, I am sure. For me, it was memorable. I even took a bow at the end. After all, I even got my feet, my hips, and my arms to move in the right syncopation, at least once. I deserved the moment.

I just can’t get the sound of titanium squeaks out of my mind from that last move. (I will let you draw your own spiritual applications if you can from this one!)

Rhythmically yours,

On the Journey