The Discipline of Relent.

We live on a very narrow street.

It is the kind of street that is “technically” two lanes however, due to its actual width and the fact that one side is perpetually lined with parked cars, it is functionally a one lane road with cars attempting to go in both directions. Add to that the Italian knack for “creative parking solutions” and you don’t have to imagine too hard how often our street is frozen in a good ole fashioned western stare down. Daily we see cars coming from both directions engaged in a game of who’ll flinch first.

On more than a few occasions I’ve mindlessly started up our road to head somewhere only to come face to face with another car. But one occasion in particular was a stare down that, *ahem* shall we say, “got a little heated.”

Like, neither car budging for a long time heated.
Like, stare down the other driver with the coldest of gaze heated.
Like, “you better move or I will literally run you over” heated. 

Now, in the aforementioned face-off I found myself a little further down the road than the other person. Behind me was literally no space on either side of the road. I could not pull aside and let her pass. So, I felt as though I should have had the right of way…and yet, I was stopped face to face with someone who had “that” look on their face.

That “there’s no way in Hades you’re going before me, back it up buster” look. So, naturally I repaid that stare with an equally icy and unwavering stare. 

Now, to be clear, for me to back up, because of the way the street is and the lack of space, it would have required me go in reverse all the way to where I started from. So, I started waiving my hands wildly in disbelief and yelling out loud (to myself, in my car) that this person had the audacity to not back up into a perfectly open space so as to allow me to easily pass. All they had to do was back up a smidge. I had to back up a much longer distance.

Oh the injustice and horror of it all.

As I became more agitated and the stand-off continued for what seemed like minutes, I heard the voice of God ask a simple question, “why is it so important for you to win?

As I ran through the litany of reasons in my head of why SHE should move I suddenly realized how ridiculous I was acting. I took a breath, and with a slight tinge of bitterness I relented. I put the car in reverse and naturally went backwards as painfully slow as I could until I arrived at the place I had begun. 

She drove right past me. No look. No wave of appreciation. Nothing. 

I’d like to say I just drove on to my destination without giving it another thought. Didn’t happen. I fumed the whole way there and then upon returning home recanted the entire event in vivid and impassioned detail to my wife. 

While an incident like this doesn’t happen every day, there are countless opportunities like it for me to “assert” myself and make sure that I get what I want when I want it. Often times this comes at the expense of my view of another person. How quick I can be to, in a sense, discount the woman (whom I didn’t even know) as some monster who wouldn’t budge or get out of my way. In those moments I’m much more concerned with myself and my “rights” than I am another person’s.

When I practice backing down in instances like these I am actively and purposely allowing others to “win.” I am, in a sense putting others needs and desires ahead of my own in a way that releases my need for justice and the “right thing” to be done. 

I’ve found that it requires a great deal of intentionality. To submit to the will and desire of another means I have to relent. I have to purposefully choose to let them win, to let them have what they want, at the expense of my own will and desire. 

When I actively look for ways to practically and intentionally relent I am struck by the sheer number of times within a given day I am plagued by selfishness and a desire for my own brand of justice mitigated by my own personal motivations. When I relent, I am practicing a way in which I put the needs and desires of another before my own. It’s not natural, it’s not fun, it’s not even always rewarding, but it is a way in which I can actively choose the good of another and in it, grow in my love for others. 

The reality is, I don’t need to win. Whether I have the right of way or not, it doesn’t really matter. If my need to win leads me to view someone else as a “monster,” then it’s a problem. When I purposefully relent and allow another to have their way, I move towards love and a proper view of my neighbor. As we look for ways to love our neighbors well, I’m reminded that one small way we can do that is to relent and intentionally choose the good of another.

To relent, as Paul says in Philippians 2, is to consider others more important than myself. It is, to look not only to my own interest, but also to the interest of others. And in this way, we actually live out and work out our salvation in Christ. In other words, it’s in the relenting of our will and way to another that we practically live out the reality of our salvation daily. 

 

A Note On Two Years

Last week we celebrated our second full year here in Italy. To say that these past two years have been an adventure would be an understatement. There have been countless things to celebrate, to grieve, to learn, to gain, and to lose.

As we reflect on the past two years here in Italy I’m reminded of Jesus’s promise in John 15.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

If there’s one thing that we’ve found to be consistent over our two years here in Italy it is that when we are listening well to the Spirit of God and obey courageously, we see God do some incredible things. We’ve learned, as Dallas Willard puts it, that when we “internalize the words of God and put them into action” we experience fruitfulness and the easy and light yoke Jesus promised.

As with most things (as we continually experience with God), abiding rarely looks like we think it should. Abiding in Jesus often pushes us past places of comfort. It often invites us to wait. More often than not we’re left being misunderstood. The incredible thing is that when we lean in, God shows up. That is the story of the past two years here in Italy. We’ve waited, we’ve listened, we’ve obeyed, we’ve been misunderstood, we’ve traded in a lot of the comforts that we were accustomed to for a new and often strange culture. But, in doing so, we’ve seen God transform our hearts and the hearts of those around us.

With each passing year may we learn to more fully abide in Him that we’d bear much fruit for His glory.

May the Kingdom of Heaven reign here in Italy as it is in heaven.

The Beautiful Chaos

March 13, 2017 we arrived here in Italy. We have now been here for over a year…

To be honest it has been a year full of ups and downs, joys and losses. To say it was an easy year would be dishonest. In fact, it was probably one of the most challenging and stressful years of our lives. And yet, despite that, we would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

People have often asked us, “what is it like to live in Italy?” The description that often comes to mind is one of “Beautiful Chaos.” Italy is, (as most would agree), an unbelievably beautiful place. From the incredible food to the world’s best wine, overwhelming piazzas to quaint cafes, the grandeur of our world’s history to the simplicity of a park bench in the shade; Italy is a place many dream of.

But just beneath the glorious beauty lies a thread that is interwoven amongst everything – chaos. This past year, we’ve continued to learn that the reality of life is, that in order for you to really experience the beauty you must embrace the chaos. From confusing bureaucracy to dizzying traffic and everything in between, there is a chaotic timber to almost every aspect of life. The more you fight the chaos of life here, the less you are able to appreciate the beauty that is around you. Life in Italy requires a lot of letting go – of expectations, of plans, of results, of control.

It is in the midst of this beautiful chaos that our souls have been stretched, challenged and changed in ways we hadn’t even expected. We continue to learn. We continue to grow and continue to meet God in the unknown and uncertainty of lives lived cross-culturally. It’s been a beautifully chaotic year.

Language Learning and the False Self

In the the first few months of learning a language cross culturally even a small trip to the grocery store can become a game of “how much stress will I have to endure this trip?”

One day as I was finishing putting all my groceries on the conveyor belt, the person ahead of me had just finished. The checkout lady turned to me.

“Salve, – (Insert a whole slew of Italian words in rapid succession here) – Ce l’hai?”

“Ce l’hai?!? Wait, what did you say?…Oh shoot, she’s staring at me…um…let’s see…’ce l’hai’…’ce l’hai’…oh wait…that means, ‘do you have it?’ I think so…shoot…wait, have what? Man that line’s getting long…hold on…um….’Si.’

“Ok.” (the cashier holds out her hand waiting for me to put something in said hand).

“Shoot…I don’t think I’m supposed to give her my credit card now…but…ok…here it goes.” (Places said credit card in hand).

(A look of confusion mixed with indignity appears on her face as she places my card on the counter and begins to scan my groceries.)

“I think she was asking about something else.”

Language learning whilst living cross culturally is one of the most frustratingly difficult and taxing things we’ve ever done. There have been few spaces or seasons in life that have forced us to face fear, confusion, and uncertainty with such laser focused precision. Language learning in a different culture has a way of pinpointing every. single. insecurity. that you hold in your heart and systematically poke and prod them relentlessly.

Situations like this one in the grocery store regularly force us to make decisions. When learning language cross culturally, one is regularly faced with answering the question of what’s more important: to pretend I understood something that was said to me so as to not look like an idiot or, to be honest and just admit I missed what was said and don’t fully understand?

Read: pretend so as not to look stupid or be honest and look stupid?

The irony is that pretending to be something we are not in order to avoid fear actually often leads to more embarrassment and doubles down on creating fear in us. When we choose to function from a place of falsehood we are functioning from a place of fear. Often this is a result of not being centered. When we forget who we are and whose we are, we easily shift and function from a false understanding of ourselves. When we live out of our false self we fear that our lack of a true center for our identity will be revealed and that weakness will be exploited by others.

Our false self will almost always try to compensate by finding our identity in performance – “I am what I do.”

In language learning our false self says:
“If I can just speak better, then I’ll be good to go!”
“Don’t let them know you don’t understand, they’ll think you’re dumb.”
“Fake it till you make it.”
“If they at least think I understand, then they’ll think I’m really doing well at learning language and will like me more.”

In language learning it’s easy to think that because we can’t speak well we won’t be valued. If our false self is rooted in value, then our ability to perform (or speak) is directly related to our value. Every time I fail to understand or articulate myself, I’ve failed. To the extent our false self guides our life, we fear others. Life with others is a constant threat to our false self. Others may see through or expose our facades of competence, confidence and control. Others may discover and disclose that we are a person without a firm center. And so we get stuck. If everything and everyone is a threat to my value then I might as well just stay inside and never leave my house.

Anytime we try to root our identity in anything other than God we’ll find ourselves trying to fearfully protect an identity that crumbles at the weight of its insufficiency. In language learning, and in reality, most things – when I try to uphold an image that I’ve created for myself I will undoubtedly, out of fear of losing it, do whatever I can to keep that image afloat. We are learning what it looks like each day to let go of the images of perfection and achievement and trust that we are valuable because of who we are in Christ and not our ability to speak well.

Our identity must be centered in Christ. Mulholland writes in his book ‘The Deeper Journey:’ “The life hidden with Christ in God is one of such growing union with God in love that God’s presence becomes the context of our daily life, God’s purposes become the matrix of our activities, and the values of God’s kingdom shape our life and relationships; God’s living presence becomes the ground of our identity, the source of our meaning, the seat of our value and the center of our purpose.”

We have to daily choose to be honest with ourselves and with others with where we are at in the process of learning the language and trust that our value comes from Christ and is enough to sustain us even if we look like idiots, fail to understand something, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

It’s easy to say our identity is found in Christ and not in our ability. But each day we are given countless opportunities to actually live that out by making choices that allow us to live in freedom from the need to uphold something that we are not. It’s in the little moments like the grocery store interaction where in a split second I can choose to live freely or hide. Do I trust that I’ll be ok even if I admit I don’t know something or apologize because I can’t say something correctly?

When I’m confident in who I am, I don’t have to pretend to be something I am not, I can be honest with where I am at in the process and relax; trusting I’ll get it…eventually. The lady at the checkout counter becomes a lot less scary when I don’t need her to assign me value.

These days when I’m asked if “ce l’hai?” I can politely just tell the checkout lady the truth…”L’ho dimenticato” (I forgot it.)

Scarves when it’s 90?

“Oh the food though…”

When Americans think about Italy they often have a very specific (and more often-than-not, romantic) view of what Italy is like. Many we have met have been to Italy on a vacation or two and had the time of their life. To be honest, Italy is beautiful, it’s charming, romantic, enchanting, and just about every other adjective you could imagine to use. Italy is a country with a rich and complex culture; but as we are learning everyday, there is a vast difference between traveling to Italy for the “vacation of a lifetime” and actually living here.

A while back, the author John Maxwell remarked, “All the best leaders in the new millennium will be missionaries.” Even for us, that seems like a pretty bold statement.

Why do you think he said that?

In a flat, globalized world it seems as though we are always crossing cultures–or at least we should be–and we need to know how to do that well if we hope to be fruitful. As our family prepared to move here and, as we live here now our prayer has been, “Lord, help us learn and understand Italian culture.” We recognized early on that our ability to connect the Gospel of Christ to Italian lives is intricately connected to understanding culture.

The author Annie Dillard once asked, “Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?” It’s easy to take a hurried and shallow look at God and miss the amazing. It’s just as easy to take a hurried and shallow look at culture and miss it’s depths. Each day, we try not to “do culture” like people “do God.” Rather, we try to allow God to open our eyes and our minds to see what “tourists” might miss.

Culture is a funny thing however. It’s a bit complex and can be difficult to get our arms around it.  But it’s worth studying because along the way we grow to better understand places, people, God and ourselves. One way of describing culture can be to identify patterns. Every culture be that a national culture or a sub-culture such as a particular business group or social group have engrained patterns that inform who they are…it’s our jobs as missionaries to learn and grow to understand the culture(s) we find ourselves in. 

As we approach our 4th full month of learning how to live here in Italy, we’ve been reflecting on a few of the differences in culture that we’ve experienced. Each day we gain cultural insights; and more often than not the assumptions that we brought over with us are not the whole picture. Here are just a few cultural differences we’ve experienced.

  1. Efficiency. “When in Italy – doubt” should be Italy’s catchphrase. When you move to Italy you have to unlearn everything you’ve ever known about things happening in a common-sense sequential manner and you have to learn the new system of nobody knows how things work, when, or why. It’s fascinating. Very little seems to be intuitive and you can’t easily figure stuff out without asking people. In order to thrive you really must hold EVERYTHING with open hands. Just because you can pay that bill at the Post Office doesn’t mean the next bill that you receive can be paid there.
  2. Space. The US is enormous so it’s no surprise that Americans are accustomed to space. Big cars, big houses, big yards, and about two feet of space between themselves and other people all the time. Italy is not gigantic and in most cities here the people live packed into a small apartment. They don’t require the same personal space. One of the first things that we noticed when we first arrived is that strangers touched me (and our kids) all the time and nobody says, “sorry” or “excuse me.” At first it seemed rude, but then we realized later that it’s because there is simply nothing to be sorry for. Sometimes you run into other people….and that’s that. We won’t even get into driving here…suffice it say…there’s no space…either go or get out of the way.
  3. Levels of neurosis. Italian culture is pretty calm compared to American culture (in SOME things). Things that would send a typical American into cardiac arrest usually won’t get more than a shrug from an Italian. For example, bad dinner service. If an American has to wait more than ten minutes to order he’s going to burn down the restaurant. In Italy? Calm down! The waiter will get here eventually (after twenty five minutes). Cutting in line…well, it’s just your fault for not protecting your space. It’s the same with chaotic driving (couldn’t resist) or an array of other things that seem like the end of the world to Americans. Italy seems to understands the concept of taking things in stride and choosing what you get up in arms over. Now…if a child hurts themselves…look out, you’ll have every parent in the room tripping over themselves to make sure that the child is ok.

To really understand culture, and to interact with it in a way that can bring profound change, but as we are learning, it’s not enough to simply observe the differences in culture. We must go deeper by asking ourselves, “Why do people behave that way?”  That question looks for meaning it looks for values that are held by a people group. Below the surface, below observing differences, are the things that influence behavior, and if we desire to see change and transformation that will be significant and durable for any of us, the change must take place below the surface – at a heart level. 

We recognize we have a ways to go before we enter into heart level spaces and conversations – but we continue to be students of culture. We are grateful for the cultural guides God has put before us who can translate culture and give us insight into the “why.”

But to be real honest some things may just continue to ever be veiled in deep mystery – like, how is it 90 degrees outside and you’re still wearing a scarf…and jacket?!?!

Ciao from Italy!!

We made it! It’s hard to believe that we have been here for almost 2 months!! Our transition has been all sorts of things: fun, challenging, exciting, frustrating, fast, slow, and everything in between. Needless to say, we’re grateful to be here. We have seen God show up in remarkable ways over the past two months. We’re thankful for his faithfulness and provision as we’ve navigated the ins and outs of life in Italy. As we’ve said before, Italy is wonderfully complex. We are learning, and yet, we still have so much more to learn. As we get acquainted with our city we wanted to give you a little taste of our neighborhood and day to day life. Here are a couple of pictures to give you a little idea of what Perugia and our neighborhood of MonteLuce looks like.

Our street.

 

Chiesa di MonteLuce – our neighborhood church.

 

“Universita per Stranieri” – Our Language School

 

Etruscan Arch – This was built in the 3rd Century B.C.

 

Piazza IV Novembre – The heart of Perugia.

 

Rocca Paolina – built as a symbol of strength and defiance against Rome.

Thank you for your prayers and your words of encouragement over the past couple months. We’ll update more soon (we’re still waiting for internet to be set up). God’s already gave us some key connections and sweet relationships. Can’t wait to share more soon!