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,


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.”

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!


Plowing New Ground

I am in month eight of language classes, and I feel like I have just begun to understand a little of what I hear and read. On occasion I can even follow one sentence with another in conversation.  The “language acquisition experts” (read: my wife) say that learning a new language in later years (not sure what she means with that) requires that the mind reopen channels of learning that have hardened and closed. I wondered what that loud noise was in my head each night when I go to bed!

There is an incredible beauty to the Italian language, and the Italian people who speak it. It shouts, it caresses, it sings, it embraces, and it kisses you on both cheeks. I can hardly wait till I get past the present tense! I have heard a lot of people say – I love Italy! For someone to say he is in love with Italy would be a  claim that’s hard to pin down. Are you in love her people, her statues, her climate – which runs the length of the thermometer, her night life, her food, her pace of life,  her diversity?

My first impression is that, to fall in love with Italy is to first fall in love with her land, mountains, valleys — her soil and rock and water. Italians come and go, but Italy’s soil has always been. Deep, rich, smelly close up; and everywhere you go, the Alps, the coasts, the plains, the Apennines, have and are shaping the region. Her land is her life. The continuity of what Italy means. That’s why Italians are so picky about their food. You eat what is in season, from you garden or local if possible, but from Italy by all means. Very little preservatives, and if you have any dirt at all, you create a garden.

My first drive south from Torre Pellice to Perugia through the Apennines, I fell in love with Italy’s land. Everywhere I look, even from the coast, I see hills, mountains, fields of whatever is in season. Spring is just greening here, and the vines and kiwis and orchards are coming alive with promise of a good season of fruitfulness. But it’s not just the food it produces as much as the lifestyle that is tied to her soil.

One of my favorite stories is of Jesus describing how seed fits into soil, and how soil is sometimes resistant to the seed. Because it is busy trying to grow other stuff not nearly as fulfilling. Because it cannot get past the worries of today and see the joyful potential of the harvest. Or because it has been pounded on by life, or has rejected seeds for year, and is crusted over. The one thing in common in each of these is a dire need to be worked by the Farmer. If I could ask you to pray for one thing over the next year for me, it would be… God, keep Rick’s soil turned and ready for seed, and let Rick and Susan and Rachael plant good seed wherever and whenever they can. And let the soil be fertile and ready for the seed to sprout and bear fruit all over Italy… and beyond! And where it is not ready, let it be open to the touch of the Master Farmer.

All For Him – from the Fields,

In Answer to the Number One Question

13:55 Friday, 13 March 2009

I can’t describe the feelings Susan and I get when we receive some sort of connection from a friend. Being on the field, away from friends, and still learning the language is sometimes like being a huge isolation chamber. One is aware of the surroundings but hits a wall in the amount and depth of interaction. So, a card, a SKYPE call, an email, a facebook post or note — each time I see in our box downstairs something other than a “publicita'” from the local grocer, or one my computer a little red number indicating someone may have written on my wall, I get a certain lift inside or a fresh burst of energy. So, thank you, wonderful friends, who have written, mailed, called, or some other way let us know you are there, praying for us and remembering us.

The most popular question lately has been a variation of “So, how’s the language coming?” From a Georgia friend, its more, “So, hair yall doin with Etalyon?” There are ways to answer this that sound great, and not so great. Compared to August a year ago, I have come a long, long way from only reciting 1 to 12 and the primary colors. I can count upwards of a thousand now, and know “blu” can be “azurre” or “celeste.”

I can sit in church and understand, when I concentrate, about 60-70% of what goes on, and I don’t break out in a cold sweat when I am at a cash register or restaurant. I am able to negotiate my way around the piazza market on Fridays and when I lead a Bible study, I occasionally break out in Italian, and understand more than 80% up close one-on-one. The not-so-great part is, I am still far from conversational (after a few sentences, I get stuck) and it takes a huge act of will to concentrate on understanding and responding for more than an hour or two. Classes help; conversations help more; being in an Italian Small Group study (I am leading the new men’s study – or “Man Study” as one calls it – at church) is the real gift God has provided.

Our “lingua Italiana” instructor asks us occasionally to write about things in our life. This week, she asked us to write about a famous landmark or statue in America. I, in one of my weirder moments, bypassed stone mountains, and presidential monuments, and chose one that is perhaps more famous in Atlanta than any of those. Below, by popular request, is the Italian version (corrected by the teacher, as I really have trouble matching prepositions and articles with nouns for some reason.) If you have trouble figuring it out, there is always

“Vicino ad Atlanta, c’e’ un monumento famoso in tutto il mondo. Che e’ alto quasi quindici metri e si trova alla destra della strada inportante nel’ villagio di Marietta di fronte all’ ristorante famose per i panini di cotoletta. Il colore del monumento e’ bianco e rosso. Si chiama Il Pollo Grande.”

Ciao from your monumentally serious friend in Italy!