Friday, November 30, 2012

Churches: Are They Obsolete?


Kelly and I saw a lot of churches on our trip through the Italian Riviera. Even the oldest and most ornate American churches are vastly different than those in Europe. Church leaders spared no expense or talent to create edifices of unequaled grandeur and symbolism. Most, took around 100 years to build, like La Sagrada de Familia (The Sacred Family) in Barcelona, Spain. Designed by Antoni Gaudi, construction of this church began in 1882 and they estimate it will be finished in 1226-28.

It seems like half our trip was spent gaping at one church or another. It was impossible to absorb all the splendor: marble sculptures, rich gold overlay, mosaics, paintings, multi-colored marble and stained glass, and ornate columns. They were magnificent and beautiful beyond description. The immensity of their design and embellishment is truly a treasure of antiquity. However, as for being places where people come to worship, they are somewhat obsolete. They are more tourist attractions now than anything else.




It reminded me of my sister’s refrigerator. A couple years ago it stopped refrigerating. Her husband made valiant efforts to fix it, but to no avail. They finally called a repairman who said it would have to be replaced.

“But it’s not even ten years old yet,” they countered.

The repairman gave a rueful smile. “Yeah, you used to be able to count on them lasting at least fifteen years, but now refrigerators and other appliances only have a life expectancy of six or seven years.” Manufacturers seem bent on planned obsolescence.

Is that where the Church is headed? Like many cathedrals in Europe, has the Church put so much emphasis on how we look to others that we’re becoming obsolete in this generation? We may not have fancy buildings, but often those outside the church think of us as stained glass saints. Nice to look at, but out of touch with real life.




The longer I walk with the Lord, the more aware I am of how desperately I need God. That's the message we need to hold out to the world. We are not beautiful and perfect, but so grateful to Jesus for offering us forgiveness and new life that we can't help but praise Him. The more we keep our focus on God’s wonderful grace and relate to others with genuine humility and love, the more relevant we will be in our world. God did not plan for His Church or His people to become obsolete. And His message will never fade or grow outdated. If anything, the Good News is more relevant than ever.

As the Message translation exuberantly proclaims:

“All his products are guaranteed to last—
Never out-of-date, never obsolete, rust-proof.
All that he makes and does is honest and true:
He paid the ransom for his people,
He ordered his Covenant kept forever.
He’s so personal and holy, worthy of our respect.
The good life begins in the fear of God
Do that and you’ll know the blessing of God.
His Hallelujah lasts forever!”
Psalm 111:7-10, emphasis added

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thankful for Balance: Cruisin


Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Each day this month I’ve been making a mental list of all the things I’m thankful for and it is endless. Recently I was reminded of the difference between praise and thanks – we praise God for who He is and thank Him for what He does. That makes the list even longer! In this continuation of my Italian Riviera Cruise series, I want to focus especially on some important lessons I learned on this trip about balance.

           
Kelly and I feel very blessed to have been able to go on this trip. It took a lot of saving and planning and work, both before and after. But more than once we mentioned to each other that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.


Sumptuous food is a treat - until it’s available 24/7 in a variety of venues. After gorging ourselves for a couple of days at breakfast, still full at lunchtime, and overstuffed and sick after eating dinner, we got smart. Back to cereal, coffee, juice and milk for breakfast, a couple of pieces of fruit for lunch (and an occasional treat onshore). Then we were able to enjoy what we wanted for dinner without being miserable.

Seeing new places and exploring each one is exciting, until you deboard on eight locations in less than ten days. Each place held unique splendor, history, culture, and flavor to take in – so much, that our senses went on overload. It was always a mad rush to get off the ship, see as much as we could, and get back before they left us behind. Kelly and I began to look forward to our seven days at sea to savor and review what we had experienced and just relax a while.

But seven days at sea is a very long time. At first it was marvelous to take dance lessons, lay in the sun, play tennis on the top deck, watch movies, meet new people, eat yummy food, see a new show or movie at night, or go dancing. However, we noticed that the longer we spent at sea, the crankier people got with the staff and each other. It got tiring to have the same conversation with someone new at every meal: “So, where are you from? How many cruises have you been on? Do you have children and grandkids?”

The service onboard the ship was beyond compare. I loved the break from cooking, housekeeping, and daily worries. However, when people began vomiting and having diarrhea after our stop at Casablanca, the staff had to take every precaution to keep the sickness from spreading. Everyone who had symptoms was under constant care; the rest of us were “served” to the max. We were no longer allowed to help ourselves at the buffet, or even get our own napkins and silverware. It gets tiresome when everything is done for you, especially when you can’t even salt and pepper your own food.
tennis on the 18th level

midship plaza

movie on deck

So in the end, even though the trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we will relive the memories again and again, there’s still no place like home. God knows we need balance in our lives. He gives us both work and rest, abundance and hunger, new delights and old comforts, times to be served and times to serve. I’m more thankful for that balance than ever before.

We were both eager to get home and see our family, get back to work, eat simple food, and re-enter life with all its highs and lows. One of our favorite verses during the trip was Proverbs 30:7-9: “Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”

Balance. We need it in finances, home life, food, physical activity, and just about everywhere. It keeps us humble enough to keep seeking the Lord, and grateful for all the blessings He gives us every day.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Crooked in Pisa


Livorno and Pisa are both beautiful, ancient cities rich with astonishingly ornate architecture. Since Pisa was our highest priority, we didn’t explore much of Livorno except for the area around the bus station where we got off the shuttle to wait for another bus to Pisa.

The ride through the Italian countryside was delightful, dotted with houses, farms, and waterways. And Pisa has a charm of its own. Our bus pulled into a large parking area with a multitude of other buses. There was no clearly marked path, but it was easy enough to follow the stream of people intent on one destination. The church, baptistery, and leaning bell tower gleam white on the vibrant green grass of the Field of Miracles. Although people were everywhere, there was still a sense of awe and quiet that I can’t describe.

All three buildings are masterpieces of multi-colored marble, ornate design, in solemn adoration to God. The tower is the smallest, but most popular of them because of its reputation and history. The work had barely begun when the builders realized the tower was already tilting in the soft soil; no amount of engineering could correct it. Now people come from around the world to take pictures of each other “holding up” or “pushing back” the unruly tower that has defied all efforts to be made straight.



Kelly and I marveled at the beauty of this square, unable to resist taking pictures from every angle. The gelato was overpriced, but delicious, and we toured booth after booth of products celebrating the crooked tower on t-shirts, mugs, key chains etc. What is it about imperfection that intrigues us so?

The anomaly of a building that has defied all efforts to be straightened has a different attraction than that of people with the same bent.

We learned early on that wherever cruise ships land, hoards of salespeople hover ready to show their wares. We could count on a variety of “Louis Vuitton”purses at every stop pushed in our faces by grinning salesmen, as if they had something original and unique. Beggars place themselves strategically wherever there is traffic. We were warned not to give them money and to refuse with a gruffness that seems rude to westerners. Soon we understood why.

In Livorno a woman holding a baby was followed by three lovely, bedraggled, dark haired girls. They circled to beg from the same congregation the entire hour we waited for our bus. One woman finally succumbed and gave them some change. We were jolted from compassion when instead of saying thank you and moving on, the mother and children pressed her for more with increasing intensity. We moved from compassion, to annoyance, to anger.

Kelly and I were even more shocked on our trek to the field of miracles. We heard screaming and shouting behind us. We turned to see a man fighting a ragged group of teens that had appeared from nowhere to surround his wife. They pawed at her, moaning and grunting; fearing for her safety, her husband pushed them roughly until they backed off.

The day was a mixture of awe, delight, annoyance, and fear – conflicting emotions over crooked things. Of course, it’s not crooked to want to make a living or feed your family, but when that desire oversteps the boundary between what is legally, morally, and socially acceptable, it has become warped. I fought constant battles in my heart and mind about how I could give to the needy in these countries without being in danger of being pick pocketed or mobbed. Even though Kelly and I give to organizations that meet needs around the world, it saddened me that fear and distrust prevented us from helping those that seemed to need help.

What’s the answer to all this? I don’t think there’s a blanket response. The Bible tells us to be wise around those with evil intentions, but to show mercy and compassion to those truly in need. As with all of life, we have to take things one step at a time, looking to Jesus in each instance for direction and wisdom so He can make the crooked things straight.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Creative Solutions in Madeira


I hope you don’t mind if I jump around a bit as I reminiscence about our trip. I promise I’ll cover it all eventually. Our last stop before spending seven days at sea was the city of Funchal, Madeira – a Portuguese island. Our captain wisely steered our boat away from the original stop at the Azores and hurricane Rafael to a safer port. We had never heard of it before, but it was definitely one of our favorite places.

White stucco houses with terra cotta roofs nestle on the hillside, contrasting beautifully with lush green foliage and numerous gardens. As we rode the cable car to Monte at the top, we noticed how many yards sported banana trees and neat rows of vegetables and flowers. They made use of every square inch. The sea view was spectacular as well.

Kelly and I toured the Tropical Garden there sprinkled with plants, fountains, ponds, waterfalls, walkways, and museums: one with African artifacts and another of rocks creatively displayed under black-light and artfully situated to look like they had formed in that very spot.



The people of Madeira get my vote for being the most innovative place we visited. Because we forgot to inform our bank of the change in itinerary, our credit card was denied and we didn’t get to ride their toboggans, but we watched others enjoy their ride and took a lot of pictures.

Apparently before the cable car, the residents of Monte built these wicker sledges around 1850 for a fast ride down to Funchal. It’s become a famous tourist attraction. Teams of two men dressed in white keep the wooden runners waxed and push each toboggan down the narrow winding streets, delighting and terrifying their riders.

Down in Funchal again, we shopped our way back to the ship and happened upon the redeemed red light district we had hoped to find. When they decided to outlaw this business opportunity, the city council declared the street an artisan’s alley; only artists are allowed to rent there. Each door is an amazing display of talent and ingenuity.



I couldn’t help but think about all the creative solutions of believers over the centuries. Like Martin Luther, who recognized that the common people needed to hear and read the Bible in their own language, so he translated the Bible into German. He also wrote original lyrics, rich with spiritual content, and set them to well-known bar tunes. These great hymns of the church have been around for centuries.

We serve a imaginative God, and it’s no surprise that His children display the same kind of delightful inventiveness:

·         in getting God’s Word into places where it’s against the law
·         to meet the needs of our communities
·         in financial, political, and social problem solving
·         to reach the youth of our generation
·         in the skills and know-how with which we each glorify God and find our purpose in life

Originality hasn’t always been welcomed in the Church, not even today. But I hope that like the people on this beautiful island of Madeira, we can appreciate each other’s ideas and innovative solutions as we work to solve the problems of our generation. The message never changes, but the methods we use should always reflect our Creator who is not limited to worn out ideas and established mores.

That gives the words of Galatians 6:4-5 in the Message a whole new meaning:“Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.”

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lost in Rome

Of all the places we visited, Kelly and I will probably remember Rome most vividly, not because it was our favorite (although it was incredible), but because we got so lost we almost missed our ship. Most of the time, we enjoyed being rebellious enough to find our own way at each stop. But this time it backfired.


beautiful ruins
The Capitole
After a one hour train ride, we got to Rome just before noon. It would be a challenge to see the sights and get back on the ship by 5:30, but we set out in high spirits. We had four specific places we wanted to visit – the Capitole, the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, and Trevi Fountain. The streets of Italy are not laid out in a neat pattern of north, south, east, and west. And every so often they throw in a five or six street intersection just to keep you guessing.

Still, we were enthralled with the ancient splendor around us; every building exudes history. First, we reached The Capitole, an impressive conglomerate of statues, fountains, and patriotic fervor. Like two cows in an international herd, we marveled at the first century ruins on our way to the Coliseum. Cold rain soaked our clothes as we paused at a section of the Roman road – where Apostle Paul and Luther once walked. The Coliseum, where many brave Christians became human torches or lion food to entertain the masses, loomed beside us.*

Roman Road


The Coliseum

We bought an umbrella and kept moving; it was getting late. We had to give up the Forum and head for Trevi Fountain before it got any later. Our umbrella blew inside out. No bathrooms anywhere. But we kept winding our way through Rome. Every once in a while we saw a sign and raced eagerly ahead like hound dogs on the scent of their quarry. Then another intersection would throw us off. Eventually we huddled together in a gathering of multicolored, multi-national umbrellas to admire the magnificent fountain.

We cried halleluia as we squeezed into a pizza shop for shelter, the best pizza in Italy, and a bathroom break. Thus fortified, we began the trek back. We followed signs to the “Termine” for an hour and a half to catch our train back before realizing we were at a subway terminal on the wrong side of Rome!

Trevi Fountain

Vatican Square
Praise God for the wonderful Italian man who told us what subway would get us to our train station. After six flights of stairs and three long hallways we got on, but still managed to get off two stops too early. After completely circling the Vatican, we boarded our train and made it back to the boat just in time to collapse in grateful praise. I have to admit there were several times along the way when I wanted to sit down and cry.

I can’t help but compare this experience to the millions of lost souls in our world who desperately need Christ. They are in danger of missing the boat. Some stray in rebellion, others in ignorance. Many don’t understand the Christian language well enough to follow our directions. Some have a map, but need help reading it, or get lost at every intersection. Some try other routes thinking they know a shortcut to heaven, and end up more lost than ever.

If Kelly and I had missed our boat it would have been expensive, frightening, and inconvenient, but we could have met the cruise ship at the next stop. However, for those who do not find Jesus in this life, there is no alternative. I may not know my way around Rome, but I want to spend my life as a signpost to Christ. “I [have] one message… the necessity of turning from sin to God through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ…Life is worth nothing unless I use it for doing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus – the work of telling others the Good News about God’s mighty kindness and love” (Acts 20:21, 24).

 *I thought about this when we watched The Hunger Games later on ship – an excellent commentary on our society’s hunger for reality shows that entertain us with the pain of others.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Italian Riviera Series

1" thick hazelnut brittle in Venice!
Hello friends,

You have been asking when I'm going to post more blogs and pictures from our recent trip. I will begin posting a series tomorrow about our cruise to Venice, Naples, Rome, Pisa, Cannes, Barcelona, Casablanca, Funchal, and Florida. What an experience it was!

Kelly and I are gradually getting back into the right time zone (having lost 9 hours, counting daylight savings time). We are re-entering family, church life, and work. It was definitely a trip of a lifetime and I can't wait to tell you all about it. But I have to say, Dorothy had it right, there's no place like home.

I hope you will check back often to hear all about our adventures and wonderful God lessons from our travels.

Be back soon,
Beth