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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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

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

Two-degrees and roundabouts

One of my favorite quirks about living in Italy was the roundabout (la rotonda). Just between my house and the nearest real city, there were seventeen. The reasoning of the Italiani, why use stop signs when you can create a circle everybody can use at once? I loved the dance that happened in urban roundabouts when there were four lanes circling a statue dedicated to The Fallen … and five entry points. Ahh, the adventure and the danger!

When we left northern Italy to return to America, we felt the weight of a complete life turn-around – it was like a roundabout we chose to enter and knew it would spill out back toward America and, specifically, my hometown of Myrtle Beach. And it did.

After a conversation with a good friend, I realized that, with the return, much of my library is still in Italy, in the hands of fellow missional’s. One of the books was a John Trent title – The Two-degree Difference. This was one of many “only read the first two chapters” books; the premise is simple. Make two-degree adjustments in your actions, posture, life direction, habits, etc., and before long, you’re heading the right way.

While I agree that we need to make right choices and move toward health – spiritually, emotionally, relationally, and otherwise – it may take a greater act. Adjusting actions by small degrees is the way we are told to replace bad habits, but how boring is that!

I like what Jesus said, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Not two-degrees. More like 180-degrees.

There is incredible power in the simple act of turning around. An about-face unleashes God’s power to change. The get the presence of God’s Kingdom face-to-face with the act of turning.

What about the two-degree principle? It may be that in our act of repenting God reveals the next thing to change, or it may be that we have gotten “out of habit” with the practices that make life richer, and by all means are worth restoring. But if it’s sin, it deserves more than 2-degrees. It deserves the full 180!

I like what Jesus said to Peter even though he knew there was a major fail in his future: “I have prayed for your Simon, that your faith will not fail, and when you have turned back (read: repent), strengthen your brothers.”

Turn from sin. Yearn for God. Return to the things that matter.

From the Rotonda,

Rick

Day One: Painter – Unlimited Beauty, Unlimited Palette

Piero lived in the 1400’s  and spent nearly every day at a desk writing contracts and signing off on legal documents in an obscure village outside of the city of Florence. He would not even have made the history books except that, instead of retiring to his home after work,  he spent his nights with a peasant girl named Catarina. She gave birth to a baby that she and Piero named Leonardo. The village was called Vinci.

Leonardo da Vinci was given a general education in math and science in his early years. But, Piero came into a fortunate position with the di Medici family and connected his son with the best training possible through mentoring. He became the apprentice of a goldsmith of fame called Verrochio (meaning “true eye,” necessary for a master artist.) Leonardo was mentored in the arts and sciences, as well as the broad sweep of techniques in sculpting, casting, and painting. He soon surpassed his teachers, and began creating new ways to span rivers, irrigate fields, and do battle. But is passion was painting.

Mark 2:13-14 records that, “Jesus went out to the lakeshore again and taught the crowds that were coming to him. 14As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at his tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me and be my disciple,’ Jesus said to him. So Levi got up and followed him.”

A businessman with plenty of means like Levi (called Matthew in most places) would be content, satisfied with his good fortune. But, Levi was wondering, searching, and waiting for what would fill his inner emptiness. We know this by what he did soon after meeting Jesus.

Read Mark 2:15-18 Why did Levi think having a party with Jesus mattered to his friends? What did he hope to accomplish? How do  you think Jesus responded to this type of party?

We likely didn’t get a personal verbal invite from Jesus of Nazareth like Levi did. But, like his friends who got the party invite from their tax-collector friend, he uses those who know him to introduce others to Jesus. If you are his follower, someone introduced you to Jesus. He speaks to each of us through the compassionate invitation of others.

Out of the Comfort Zone:

1. Consider your place at the party table. Who invited you? Send him/her a letter or email. Better yet, make a phone call. If that’s not possible, journal a letter you would want to write to him/her.

2. At church this Sunday, be intentional about bringing people to the party table. Look for a person, couple or family who needs a personal invite into your life in Christ. Ask them to lunch or schedule a time to meet, just for the benefit of “hang out time.”

3. Find a neighbor in your circle of people who needs a party. If it’s someone who needs your forgiveness, extend it. If it’s someone who is hurting or without something, provide it. Do something for someone that builds a bridge you can send a party invitation across.

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!

Riccardo

The Greatest Act of Worship

Have you even wondered how the beauty of goodness and the ugly of evil can exist in such close proximity? Just inside the entrance to the Sistine Chapel, covering the wall is Michaelangelo’s “Judgement Day” fresco. He depicts heaven, Jesus enthroned, worship and redemption graphically juxtaposed with hell’s fires, anguish, hopelessness and evil. The light of heaven is above; the darkness of hell is below. And pulling toward the dark those who long for good are the demons of hell. He had insight!

I see this juxtaposition of goodness and evil every day around me (and unfortunately, the battle of this inside me, too.) In Matthew 26 you can read about the greatest act of evil happening right alongside the greatest act of worship.

The Pharisees plot Jesus’ death. They do so in a politically correct way, of course, by trying to avoid Passover — a sort of Jesus-gate collusion.

While they look for a breakthrough to this “Nazarene problem, Jesus experiences the greatest act of worship possible. He is with his disciples dining at the house of a man he likely healed of leprosy, and “the woman” brings the alabaster jar in and breaks and pours out this expensive gift in adoration onto his feet.

The writer of this account uses two key “transition words” that indicate these two events were happening side-by-side – different locations, down the street from each other, but at the same time. How revealing!

When I break open and pour out what I am before the Lord, the fragrance is sweet – not because of the good I have done or am, but because of the good He has poured in. And when this happens, the aroma can overwhelm the place I’m in and draw others to the Source of this perfume. No matter the evil “down the street” or the pull the enemy has to tempt us toward the darkness, the fragrance of God’s grace and the goodness through a life poured out for Him is greater!

As you and I seek the Father, live by the Spirit, and pursue the Son’s command to follow Him and build disciples of all nations, keep pouring out the good He has poured into you.

Broken and splashed – Rick

What I Have Learned About Prayer in 40 Years…

What I Have Learned About Prayer in 40 Years…
And Still Wish I Could Get Right!
Rick Harrell
appuntivita.wordpress.com

1. Mix it up. Don’t get into a routine that can grow stale. Try new things in your devotionals to bring new energy to your prayer time. For a whole year, each of my daily devotion times involved reading through the Psalms and learning about worship and trust. He expanded my heart for Him that year.

2.  Try online resources for devotionals. I currently use StudyLight.org and go to the devotional section and choose two of these as a part of my day’s start – my two choices currently are “Word for Today” and “My Utmost for His Highest.” My Utmost is in book form in a modern translation, and may be out there in Italian, too, since I am writing this from Italy and you may even be Italian.

3. Pick a special place to have your devotions and prayer.
It may be a chair in a certain part of the house, or a corner of your balcony. I have a friend who has a real closet area, with a window, a stool and small table. He is on his knees more, though. Have your Bible and journal/prayer notebook waiting on you each morning.

4. Make appointments in your diary for time with God. Give Him priority… that means He gets first spot.

5. Always, always, always, start your Bible reading with prayer. We need His help to discover and uncover truth. Put yourself in the story, and picture the people and places. Listen with your imagination to the background noises. Ask God to talk to you and show you what He wants you to take away and apply. Remember to say: “God, this is supernatural in front of my eyes; and I need your Spirit to help me understand it and what I should do in response to it.”

6. If you want to learn how to pray, go on a “treasure hunt.” Read through the letters of Paul and write down the things he prayed for others. Then read through the prayers of Jesus. Most of them were short (“Be healed.” “Come out.” “Be calm.” “Be still.”) Look at the authority He prayed with. Pray like him when you pray for others. “God, calm the storm in his life.” God, make her whole.”)

7. Understand your day’s rhythms. When are you most full of energy and can give your best to God’s call to prayer? Try to fit your time to this – if it’s morning, make it happen then. Don’t give God your yawns! And if you have trouble focusing, keep a list of things you will take care of that come to mind while you pray. Get them off your mind and onto the paper, so you can return to praying.

8. Understand your emotional rhythms. You are uniquely you! Some days of the week or month and even some seasons of the year are just not your best “I really feel great about praying” times or days. Do it anyway. God isn’t dependent on your feelings each time you pray. He really isn’t limited to you getting emotional (even though He wants to engage your passions.) He loves to answer when we are not “feeling it.” So, quit the excuses of “I don’t feel it” and PRAY! Faith in God, His Word, His Promises, His nature, His will – these are fuel of what our prayer life runs on.

9. Some days are time-limited. Make these shorter times count. Worship, read and pray in faith. Don’t try to work up an emotional high before praying since you will frustrate yourself, frustrate God, and probably still not pray in faith.

10. Some days are time-gifted.
You sometimes have “open windows of prayer” when you can take extended times to worship, pray, fall in love with Jesus, journal your heart out onto paper or your digital blog. Look forward to those days, and ask God what he wants to teach you about His heart. Be obedient when He speaks. These times can often change the course of your life or the lives of others. (One time, about an hour into my prayer time, God spoke to me about lifting my hands to Him in worship. I was outside at the time, and I told Him I didn’t worship like that. He clearly said, “If you don’t, you will stop right here in your growth in worship.” My hands went up so quick it was funny. Now, lifting hands to a loving Daddy is a natural response to His love.)

11. Organize your prayer life by circles. This may be my biggest struggle to keep up with, other than the simple let’s just do it attitude I need to have toward prayer. It helps to remember that “praying always” or “praying continually” for someone doesn’t mean you have him or her on your lips all day and all night. Praying continually means that you have a consistent time of praying for them
•    Your most immediate circle should be daily, and include those God has put in your life for an ongoing purpose. (My wife, my three kids; my spiritual leaders – missions, pastor, Bible study; my work leaders – boss, those I work immediate with most of the time; those I am discipling, usually two or three guys; those I am reaching out to, usually three or four people I am trying to strengthen bridges of trust and compassion to them that the Gospel can travel more freely over.) Sounds like a lot on the first list that happens each day – but really only about 10-12 people.
•    My next list is the once a week list. This is usually broken down into Monday-Saturday, and I cover extended family, church members who have needs and ask for prayer, missions partners whom we support, our government/schools/military/economy/culture – that it would all work together to create a spiritual climate open to the Gospel, the persecuted church, extended list of lost or hurting people.
•    My final list is those “one-time” prayer requests that come my way. I pray for them right there with the person, or pray for the need when I get home. But I don’t own this one as my “burden” to pray for regularly. I do pray for these occasionally, and I check in with the person to see how God is answering and to let them know I am continuing to pray (not continuously, but continuing…)

12. Move prayer needs around. Journaling helps me keep up with names, needs, answers to prayer, praise reports. Just because a person or a need is on a certain day or list doesn’t mean you shouldn’t “bump the priority up” when God says so.

13. Begin and end each prayer time in worship and thanksgiving.
As a part of the beautiful conversation God has begun with us, make worship and adoration an essential part of your prayer time. Sometimes, it may be your whole prayer time. Other times worship is the prelude to praying in faith, and thanksgiving is the consummate finale.

14. Use the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer as your extended prayer day pattern.
An hour or more can go by quickly when you take these words Jesus gave us, and you use them as the “diving board” to jump into the deep end of the pool in prayer. I can share more about this if you’d like. I keep an outline of an hour’s prayer time in my Bible most of the time.

15. My favorite Prayer Verses? Ephesians – the whole book. Incredible insight into our position in Christ, the battle we are in, and how to stand faithfully to the end in prayer.

Prone to Pray,

Rick

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