Notes From The Field

Reflections on Life and Death.

I’ve said it often: articulating the realities of life abroad is difficult at times. These past three and a half years have been among some of the most difficult in my life. To live in a culture not my own is a challenge to be sure. It’s a challenge that is overwhelmingly about surrender & loss. To be sure, there are gifts, many gifts, but more than not it’s full of sacrifice. Most of which goes unnoticed and unseen to the naked eye. Now, we said yes, so we are in no way victims, but rather, willing participants in an adventure with God and learning to live from his perspective. We said yes without fully knowing what would lie ahead. For most likely had we known, we may have rethought many of our choices. And yet here we are. We’re still here by God’s grace.

Perhaps the single most important thing I have learned over the course of our time is just how very present our Lord is to us – always. Even when you can see nothing. Even when it looks like an overwhelming chasm lay before you and you’re simply asked to jump in – he is there, God is present. Often we are so consumed by what we see in front of us that we miss, or rather are unable to see God’s perspective, but God deeply desires to teach us to see as he sees. 2 Kings 6 is a great example of this – there’s always much more going on than meets the eye.

The truth is, we are in the midst of a dramatic battle. For years I thought my engagement in that battle meant I had to fight and fight as hard as I could. What I’ve been learning is that my role is simply to learn how to stand as Paul says in Ephesians 6. The armor that Paul talks about, which we’ve been provided, was given not so much for us to don and then run headlong into battle. Rather, it’s provided so that we’d be able to stand and withstand the forces of the evil one and his army. It’s actually God himself who battles on my behalf. It’s God who disarms, who disrupts, who causes to cease the violence and vitriol left in the wake of the army of darkness. My part is to, with him, learn to withstand the attacks of the evil one and in doing so, shine light brightly in the darkness. I take ground only when God instructs or invites me to. This is quite different than the “warrior for Jesus” image I grew up with. I am not to be the warrior gloriously riding into a battle and cutting through the enemy lines, instead I’m to listen to the voice of God and obey.

Most often I found that obedience is much less glamorous than I’d like to admit. Often obedience requires sacrifice, humility, a laying down of my own ideas, desires and self. This can feel like death, and in a way it is. A lot of little deaths. This surely is the way of Jesus. I must die to myself, for my way is not THE way. That’s difficult to really hold, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s true.

Over the past few years I’ve had all sorts of grand plans to “do” some kind of ministry, to make some kind of impact, to go do this or that…those plans, when they didn’t go as “planned” revealed a lot about my heart. I want what I want when I want it; there can’t possibly be another way. The thing about death and loss is that for most of us we’re so terrified of it because we don’t know what’s on the other side, it often feels pretty final. But if we actually, actively practice dying, dying to self and surrendering aspects of our life to God, we see that in God’s economy death for us, as with Jesus, is not the end. That’s because our God is a God of resurrection, redemption, and life.

That’s where our hope lies – that God is good and will bring about good for me (Rom. 8:28). God is love and love always brings and works towards the good of others. Love works always towards good and that good leads to life. As I lay down my own thoughts, plans, ideas, hopes, dreams, or my very life before God, he in turn brings life to my life. Death to life.

As I’ve recounted over the years, we’ve certainly lost quite a bit in choosing to live here in Italy. We’ve lost the ease of being known or understood. We’ve lost the ability to always carefully and intentionally communicate with clarity. We’ve lost closeness to family and friends. We’ve lost options, choices, opportunities and even some freedoms. We’ve lost the relative ease of knowing how a culture works and functions and what’s needed to navigate it. With each of these losses (and a myriad of others) we’ve had to fully hold them, look at them, mourn them – in a sense, bury them.

It’s been disorienting and in some ways it’s forced us to take a hard look at how we view ourselves: what makes me me. This has led to the death of who I thought I was. We’ve also been forced to let go of all control and release the whole litany of things we can’t control to the Lord. This led to the death of the illusion of control.

What’s interesting is the death of who I thought I was has actually allowed me to see with better clarity than ever who God has made me to be. When I live in that way, I experience life. But it required me to actually and intentionally choose to lay down the old way. The death of control has allowed me to see that the only real control I have is what I think about, everything else is out of my control. If that’s true, I can stop trying to get people to do what I think they should do and trust God will do his work in his time. It allows me to live freely rooted in hope, trusting and knowing that God will bring about good, even if I can’t see it at the moment.

All of this death to life is really learning to live from a Kingdom perspective. It is the process of bringing my kingdom – the range and dominion of my will – under God’s rule and authority and allowing him to accomplish good in me and through me. This is why passages like Psalm 23 or Matthew 11 are so important to cling to – because kingdom living promises life. It promises an easy yoke and light burden and that we’ll have what we need when we need it. God promises good for us. The problem though, as previously mentioned, is that we have an enemy. Jesus reminds us in John 10 that that enemy is a thief, liar and a murderer and he desires to undermine the good that is promised us.

We’ve certainly seen and experienced that intensely here in Italy. We’ve heard the lies that we won’t have enough. We’ve been fed fears trying to convince us that we’re all alone. We’ve felt the looming death that tries to convince us of the futility of our work and our lives. This is, in fact, the opposite of the abundance that Jesus promises. This is death.

And so it’s even more important for us to remember and understand things like when we say that Jesus overcame death and death was defeated we’re actually saying that these lies, fears, visions of death when met with the light of Christ, don’t stand a chance and are shown for what they really are. We bring the light to bear in the darkness when we hold up the truth of Scripture and the words of the Spirit to our souls to the lies. When we do that, we are reminding ourselves that our God always works for our good and he always works for our life. But we have a choice – to take Jesus at his word as a bringer of abundance or not.

The past three and a half years have been an exercise of trying (with a ton of grace) to actually hold Jesus’ words as truth and to put them into practice. We have come face to face with the darkest darkness we’ve ever experienced in our lives. We’ve sat in some of the most intensely lonely and isolated places we’ve ever been. We’ve been to the depths of depression. We’ve been hit with wave after wave of rejection. Often it feels like we’re saying goodbye more that hello. We’ve heard the voices of doubt, fear, listlessness and death hiss around us. But throughout it all we’ve never faced any of it alone.

Often I’ve wanted to run as far in the other direction as I could from those things so as to avoid the pain and discomfort. The thing I’ve learned though is that every time I run away, whatever I’m running from just follows me. These years here have been about learning not to run away but instead to stand, with Jesus and face these things together. The most magnificent thing happens when I do that with Jesus, fruit begins to appear. When I face life with Jesus, the rootedness and fruitfulness of Psalm 1 becomes more and more real. Then a shift takes place from viewing pain in life as a thing to avoid and instead understand it as a grace that leads to life. James and his words on perseverance through trials becomes much more real when you walk with Jesus into the storms of life and see him show up in mighty ways. When we die over and over again and see that life is on the other side you undoubtedly will be filled with joy which is simply a pervasive sense of well being. That well being of course, is guaranteed because our Lord is our shepherd and reminds us that even in the valley of the shadow of death we’ll be ok because he’s with us.

That is the promise of Emmanuel. God. With. Us. We are not alone. Death is not the end. God is good and has good for me. These are the truths that God has been reminding us of over the past few years and truths that invite us to live squarely planted in the kingdom of heaven – a kingdom full of life.

A Yearning For Freedom

A little over a week ago Perugia took time as they do every year to remember. June 20th is a date forever etched in the history books here in Perugia. Her history is full of battle, warfare, and sadly, a great deal of loss at the hands of oppressors spanning from the days of Augustus Caesar all the way to the Fascist regimes of Mussolini and Hitler. Every year the city gathers to celebrate and remember June 20th for two reasons.

The first is a tragedy that certainly hardened the hearts of many and has left an indelible mark on the city, the results of which are still seen today. In the middle of Italy’s struggle for unification, Perugia found herself in the crosshairs. The city had long been the heart of the papal states (a strategic city and region ruled by the pope) and wanted to join with the rest of Italy’s unification plan. Rebellion grew and Perugia successfully ran the pope’s regime out of town. But the insurrection didn’t last long, on June 20th, 1859 the troops of the Swiss regiments sent by Pope Pius IX returned and attacked the citizens who had rebelled against the papal rule. While the actual fighting led to few casualties, it was the aftermath of the army’s victory that is forever remembered. The pope’s army proceeded to dominate the citizens, loot the city, massacring her people. This would became a tragedy remembered and commemorated throughout the years through art, poetry and even stone. Today, a monument forged by Giuseppe Frenguilli stands in the place where much of this massacre took place.

The second reason this date is significant is that it commemorates the day the Fascist’s were forced out of town and the city was liberated by the Allied forces. Every year the city hangs a wreath on a plaque outside a shooting range commemorating this victory and at the same time remembering the loss of those “freedom fighters” within the city’s walls that were lined up at the range and were killed by means of firing squad at the hands of the Nazis.

Tragedy. Loss. Death. Take a walk around most cities here in Italy and you’ll undoubtedly see monument after monument. The monuments of our cities are erected to tell stories; some tell stories of victory, some of loss, and still others of oppression and despair. The monument of XX Giugno is one of loss mixed with hope.

As I walked the streets a little over a week ago seeing the sights of commemoration I was reminded of a quote by Giuseppe Frenguelli when asked about the meaning of his monument. He simply responded, “It represents the yearning for the freedom of Perugia.” These moments in Perugia’s history celebrate an admiration for courage, an aversion to cruelty, and a distrust of the oppressor. This date represents something deep within the psyche of Perugia life: the desire for freedom from oppression.

Over the years the history of Perugia’s suffering at the hands of oppressors has caused a hardness to take hold, and understandably so. As we’ve learned more and more about this place and her history our hearts are broken. Often we’ve not known how best to pray or care for the city the Lord’s brought us to. Often when praying for a city, for a people, for a place we look for Kingdom values to bless. Some cities admittedly make it more difficult to find those values as they’ve become hidden underneath layer after layer of violence, death, loss, unresolved grief, bitterness and so much more.

As we commemorate, remember, and celebrate Perugia every June 20th, the Kingdom cry for freedom is brought forth from the very lips of her government officials who adorn these places with wreaths. This. Is. Good. It is the freedom from oppressors that Jesus promises, for the Kingdom is at hand!

Our prayer is that Perugia would kneel before the King and place itself squarely under His reign and rule, so that the Kingdom of heaven would come more completely and fully and meet her desire for freedom with the abundance and generosity of the King.

May the Lord bless and set Perugia free.

3 Years.

3 years of life here in Italy. 3 years of ministry in a country that is slowly becoming more “home” with each passing year. To be honest, it’s hard to believe we had to “celebrate” our 3 year anniversary here in total lockdown. That’s the reality of life and ministry, it’s always changing, always shifting, and at the end of the day we can’t control it.

Over these past few years we’ve certainly learned a lot. We’ve experienced so much; we’ve laughed and cried, succeeded, failed, lived with much and with little. We’ve celebrated breakthroughs with a few. We’ve mourned the hardening of hearts with still a few others. We’ve had the privilege of experiencing life in ways most could only imagine and we’ve recounted the losses of comfort and preference.

As we’ve said many times before life cross culturally has a way of stripping you, and that’s certainly true. Cross cultural living takes all that you once held to be “the most important” and lays it bare before you. Your world becomes upended and forces you to reevaluate and reorient. It prods, pushes, and provokes your deepest insecurities and most sacredly held beliefs. This certainly shifts and changes as the years abroad go by. As we’ve seen over these past few years, if you open yourself to what God has for you in this process, it will re-form you in a way that only expands the prism of beauty and life through which you can view all of life. Cross cultural living has a way of forcing you to search for beauty and life, because if you don’t, your soul can wither.

In 3 years of life in Italy we’ve learned to search for and celebrate beauty and life wherever we can find it. We’ve learned to look for life, look for beauty, choose to believe that God is good and at work this very day, even in the most insignificant and smallest forms – and celebrate that – every day. Even when the days are long and life sucks, even when fear and death swirl around us, search for and cling to life, search for and cling to the good.

Over the past three years these words of Dallas Willard recounting Jesus’ Kingdom invitation have guided us, encouraged us and remind us of our own invitation and the invitation we offer to others:

“Re-think how you’re living your life in light of your opportunity to live in God’s Kingdom today and forever by putting your confidence in him. (Of course, Jesus’ gospel includes forgiveness of sins, liberating the oppressed, and being faithful to a community of Christ-followers.) The gospel of the kingdom steadies us against believing anything bad about God. It calls us, rather, to believe that what is good God will bring to pass. In fact, this world is a perfectly safe place to be as long as you’re in the Kingdom of God.

We’re grateful for these past three years here in Italy. We look forward to what lies ahead. Whatever may come, we’ll look for the beauty, we’ll trust God is with us and choose to believe that God is good.

Sempre Avanti.