A Lament For A City

When you live anywhere for an extended period of time, you slowly become more aware of the culture, texture and general feel of the place. Nowhere does the culture, texture and feel come alive more than on the streets of the city.

We have now been here in Perugia for two and half years. The streets of this city tell its story of triumphs, whisper its secrets, and bear its scars. Slowly, as we’ve walked the streets prayerfully over these past few years we’ve become better attuned to the story this beautiful city tells.

Upon arrival in Perugia you can’t help but come face to face with its massive walls. There are actually three layers of walls spanning a whole history of wars fought. They shape and define this city. Perugia is a city built as a fortress. It functions as a fortress. I believe that the shape and definition, both geographically and physically of a city affect the people who inhabit it. A city built as a fortress, functions as a fortress. The are reasons for the way a city is built, functions and behaves. Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A history of war, famine, suffering, autonomy and oppression will undoubtedly mark and shape a people and their city.

The story our city tells is a story of great victory but also of loss and sorrow. Over the past few years we’ve felt the weight of the city, a once proud city at the center of the Etruscan empire has been left behind and forgotten by a nation. Its people wear the heaviness of unresolved sorrow on their faces. The problem with sorrow is that it doesn’t simply disappear over time.

Unresolved sorrow will almost always undoubtedly lead to bitterness. Sorrow that is dealt with in a healthy way however, will eventually lead to hope. This reality is on display throughout the book of Lamentations. In the midst of loss, sorrow and crisis, Lamentations points toward God and acknowledges his sovereignty regardless of the circumstances. Throughout scripture, lament is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament. A lament allows someone or someones to engage with the reality of their situation. To feel it. To hold it. To allow the sorrow of loss to run its course. Plumbing the depths of sorrow paves a wave forward with God, it allows us to cry out for help and a way out, which undoubtedly leads to praise for the ways in which He responds.

When we see the brokenness in our cities it is certainly not surprising that we cry out for health, wholeness and justice. We desire to be part of the change and transformation of a place. But often in ministry we go straight for the fix. This method, though helpful sometimes in the short term, often undermines true healing and a wholistic way forward. Rah and McNeil in their book “Prophetic Lament” summarize it well:

Ministry in the city can often focus on symbolic ideals. We may idealize and even romanticize the city beyond its material reality. Instead of lamenting the actual situation of the city as demanded by the city-lament genre as employed in the book of Lamentations, we may long for an idealized future for our city. In urban ministry, there is a strong tendency toward an image of what the city should be. Often, that image may reflect the image of a successful suburban ministry and assumptions about a flourishing life in a gentrified urban neighborhood. A city lament brings the story of the city to its actual material setting and reality. The city is not an object to be fixed or manipulated—it is the concrete reality of lives and souls that live in the city (85).

That’s the gift of lament. It forces us to linger in the concrete reality of life in a city. It prevents us from simply jumping to the fix. As we pray for our city, we’ve seen the way unresolved sorrow has stunted life. The losses from over two thousand years of history, history that is full of conquering and being conquered, have a way of seeping into the very fabric of life. Lamentations reminds us that hope is found only in submission to God and not in our ability to scratch and claw our way out of it. As we’ve prayed for the city, a lament came forth, one we offer in hope that God would respond and remember again this beautiful city.

A Lament For Our City

Remember, O Lord, what happened to us and our city;

            look, and see the layers of our disgrace.

Our inheritance was given over to strangers;

            our land buried by those whom you had appointed.

Whole families slaughtered – widows, orphans, fatherless;

            all left to grieve with no one to comfort them.

The crops we grow are no longer ours;

            our autonomy and freedom has become our isolation.

The one’s whom claim your name harass and murder our people;

            so then, to whom shall we turn?

We tried in vain to protect ourselves;

            just so we’d have enough to eat.

Our fathers built more walls and killed in the name of protection;

            and now we bear their sin.

We kept building walls, trying to protect and hold back destruction;

            instead, those walls became our prison – with no one to save us.

We walk the streets plagued by suspicion;

            who will attack us next?

Our bodies burn with fear;

            fear of looming threat from every direction.

Women have been violated, forgotten, ignored throughout our history;

            there is no place for you young woman – stay in your home.

Young men, you are forced to shed your innocence before it’s time;

            elders, leaders forced to hold your built up disappointments and sorrows.

The youth are left without work and without hope because of unjust practices;

            young men buried under the weight of expectation that they are to be strong yet never having developed strength.

The elders of the city silently fade into pension;

            the youth who raise their cries for justice are met with mockery.

What was once a beautiful, vibrant and colorful city

            is now faded under the tinge of pollution; reduced to grey.

Our great warriors and walls have failed us;

            woe to us; for we have sinned.

For this our hearts have grown faint;

            our eyes are made dim and set ever towards the ground.

This city on a hill is forgotten;

            we are left disconnected, for Italy has passed us by.

You oh Lord reign forever;

            your throne endures from generation to generation.

Why have you also forgotten us?

            why have you left us to die in our prison cell?

Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may be free;

            renew and restore the color and hope that once was.

Unless you’ve rejected us completely;

            and your anger rests on us without measure.

Would you join us in lamenting the brokenness of a city and praying for the hope that is found in God’s faithful response.

“If They Would Only…”

Ministry is a funny thing. We serve others because we care. Our deepest desire is that people would experience love and freedom. We desire for them to be filled with hope and their lives to be marked by peace. Obviously our desire is rooted in relationship with Jesus. It is out of a life that’s being transformed by Him that we serve others. At the same time, often the longer we are in ministry the easier it is for us to see the shortcomings in others. It becomes easier for us to see clearly the barriers to belief or life transformation in the lives of those we serve. We often find ourselves locked in to the “problems” that plague the church and hinder her from being all that God has called her to be. If we’re not careful though, our ability to discern these things can lead us to a place of pride. With great ease we quickly move to right answer and right action rather than actually caring for those we serve.

Out of “love” we say things like…”if they would only…” or “why can’t they just…” or even, “they need to understand…” I’ve said these words. I’ve thought these thoughts. And even though I can rationalize them as care for others, I often find that my bigger issue is that they’re not doing the things that I want them to do. Or perhaps they’re not believing the things I think they should believe. This is often just a guise for control. When we use the cover of ministry to control actions or belief, we’re actually not loving people at all.

Ministry is messy. People are messy. The longer I walk with Jesus the more I realize that my job is not to change behaviors or even thinking…it’s simply to love my neighbor. God actually takes care of the rest…in his time, in his way. How can I love well when I more concerned with getting them to do the right thing, when we know actions are nothing more than outpouring of a person’s heart? If I care for someone’s heart well and actually allow God to do the changing of things, it often leads to real transformation. When I only see the sin or distorted belief and push towards change of behavior or belief, well, that often leads to a fight. That’s probably because behavior modification rarely leads us anywhere.

To actually care for a person’s heart we must be filled with compassion. Compassion allows us to live with the tension of what is and what should be without needing to force anything. The only way we can actually live lives of compassion is if we ourselves have experienced compassion. This is probably why Jesus tells us to love our neighbor AFTER we learn to love God. That’s because the only way we can be people of compassion is if we have first received it from God himself.

When we show compassion to others, when we choose to love rather than control, when we sit patiently with people, we are actually pointing them to life in the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a kingdom in which we can trust God will act. Life in the kingdom is a life of compassion, a life of patience, a life of long suffering, and a life of trusting in the slow, intentional work of God to bring about transformation. This is where real change happens. When I push – I often push away from the kingdom. I am reminded of how Jesus interacted with the woman at the well in John 4. He didn’t start with “you are a terrible human being who sleeps around and makes terrible choices.” That probably would have shut down the conversation rather quickly. Instead, Jesus actually leads with compassion and care. The change in her heart naturally follows.

May I be a person who simply points people to life in the kingdom. May I show compassion when I’m tempted to show someone the “right answer.” May I resist the urge to simply jump to right thinking and instead care for someone’s heart by trusting God to do the changing. To be clear this doesn’t mean we don’t ever preach repentance or point people towards their need for change. But as I reflect on the life of Jesus I see over and over again examples of his compassion and care. The people whom he went to battle with, the Pharisees, were those who should have known better and claimed faith. As someone who claims faith, I must repent of having all the right answers and the right way of bringing about change in a person’s life lest I become like those Jesus condemns. May we in the church practice restraint and patience and a desire to love rather than control.

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!