Trip 38 / Entry 37 / Meat in the heat

Sunday, June 8, 2014

 

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After a long drive into the mountains we arrived at a small house with cars parked along the side of the road. As we made our way into the yard we saw young men playing football (soccer), while older women sat talking under tall poplar trees trying to stay out of the sun. There was not a hint of a breeze.

We were invited inside the one room house to change into our casual clothes in the bathroom but when we went through the door we were immediately arrested by the air conditioned interior and the couch along the wall. We sat and waited our turn as we watched six Spanish girls chop tomatoes, lettuce and cilantro. We regretted to hear that the bathroom was now free, we could change our clothing and go out under the roof or the trees with the other forty hot, sweating people. Being the oldest people in the crowd allowed us few special privileges.

Outside the unfinished, three sided building was empty except for two guys playing ping pong and three others standing around a grill turning mounds of meat. I wasn’t surprised to see our guests and my Brazilian friend from Portugal giving a hand. Brazilians, barbecue and meat are synonymous. After what seemed like a very long time due to the heat and the lack of shade an incredible sit down meal was laid out for about forty or more people. We all had more than we could eat and frankly, some of the food had to go home with folks as leftovers. Bacon chunks and rice found its way to the table and almost always does when Spanish or Brazilians are prepping the food.

It was a wonderful time of fellowship and since I didn’t know everyone attending I took up a conversation with five people who were apparently unbelievers but I didn’t know so they all got plan “A” as I explained the purpose of apologetics by presenting several examples which caught their attention. For one thing, I talked about it means to have a Christian worldview and what it means to be human (Imago Dei) and the meaning of the fall using the text, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Indirectly many of my comments were affirmed though as it often happens, once the conversation gets too deep some retreat into obvious but utter silence.

In reality though, this is the most effective method for doing evangelism in a gospel resistant culture like Italy. The party model where Christians having a good time are put together with non-believers is most convincing since people can see the gospel before they ever hear it. The chances that any of these unchurched friends will find themselves in an evangelical church anytime soon are beyond remote unless they have prior positive exposure to the message or messenger(s).

 

Trip 38 / Entry 36 / The Last Day of Mnistry

Sunday, June 8, 2014

1,300 nights on the road

Perhaps some of you wonder why I go to this trouble of writing 36 blogs over a period of seven weeks? There are a variety of reasons but probably the most important might be this, it is a way of document my missionary journey. I doubt if anyone will care once I am dead and gone but for me it is quite interesting to have this history now documented over eight years or more in some 470 small vignettes likely been missing from my bed for at least 1,300 nights over the last thirteen years so this all stretches into quite a story for a boy from small town Oklahoma and Kansas.

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Gruppo Cristiano Latino Americano

I wound up the seven weeks on the road in my home church in Europe where I have such old and good friends. This morning we had an attendance of around one hundred twenty or so in the sanctuary, so altogether, there were probably 150 in attendance when the children are added.

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This church has pretty much what it needs from parking to sanctuary and classroom space. It also has the advantage of good music and leadership. I mostly just sit back and enjoy it all until it comes my turn.

IMG_3239Today, I preached a message I have been carrying with me (something I think folks need to hear), “Disappointment with God.” What’s the meaning of disappointment? What does God have in mind by putting his people through it?

It all went well and I gave no real altar call but it almost always turns out people came for prayer for various needs and this morning two couples who happened to attend for the first time came with the intention of serving God in this church. There were several others. I love the openness of Latin people. It is so difficult to move a comfortable American by any appeal. 

 

Trip 38 / Entry 35 / Fidenza Outreach

Since I was to be picked up in Parma at four for a new church street project outreach in Fidenza we went back to Parma in time for a short rest and getting picked up by Francesco. Off we went.

It was a terribly hot in the afternoon without a breath of air when we arrived in Fidenza at about five-thirty. We parked and walked the four blocks to the city center where there was a festival. In Italy almost anything that features a balloon is called a feste.

Fidenza

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It wasn’t hard to find our outreach team. There were about fifteen young people from various nations gathered in a loose circle enthusiastically singing to the sound of a strummed guitar and another fellow beating on something that served as a drum.

The Brazilians

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10296994_733365286686696_4521078741189322577_n (1)Almost ten years ago I made about three subsequent visits to Portugal where I connected with Brazilian, Free Methodist missionaries to Portugal, Cindi and Eduardo. They had now come from Lisbon, Portugal to Italy and Parma, renewed acquaintance and be introduced to the Gruppo Cristiano Latino Americano leadership. Two new Brazilian workers who feel called to Italy, Moses and his wife, Jacione have been in Portugal establishing EU residency for this very purpose. Ten years haven’t seemed to make much difference in Cindi and Eduardo and to me they looked the same as when I left them. They also brought along another pastor, Cida whom I had met but frankly, hadn’t come to know because of the limitation of language for both me and her.

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After so many years we enjoyed reconnecting and promised to talk more on Sunday when we would have more time to socialize but for now we had to go to a service where I would preach.

IMG_3212The evening was shared by a band from Brecia that had come down to help. Even in the heat, they certainly held the attention of the audience with lively music interspersed with testimony and videos.

Trip 38 / Entry 34 / Alberto and Karla’s

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Leaving Jeanne in the B and B for a couple of hours, I went down to Pulchinella (a coffee shop) to meet Pastor Aldo. All along it was planned that we would carve a little time to talk about recognized ministerial training for a new generation of pastors and the anticipated growth of biblical Christianity in Italy. We were together until noon until I rushed off to get Jeanne and go to Karla and Alberto’s for lunch.

The color coordination was a total accident!

The color coordination was a total accident!

Pietro

Pietro

Karla is married to Alberto and she is Kevin’s sister. Kevin is an Italian living with us and attending university. Karla and Alberto have a little baby boy by the name of Pietro and Jeanne wanted to see him so we got a free lunch. Karla cooked up gnocchi followed by salad, potatoes and a rolled Parmesan styled chicken item stuffed with pancetta and mozerella.

Entry 29 / Posh

Gruppo Cristiano Latino Americano

On Sunday morning I took to the pulpit again and faced a full house of  nearly 180 people. Following the altar call I gave an invitation to which twenty people responded. Many were asked to help by praying with the seekers and Jeanne, who is quite good at this sort of thing, got an interpreter and prayed for several who came forward.

The Villa

Thomas and Marcela (Cassandro) McEvoy 

Thomas and Marcela

On occasion I am asked to participate in a wedding. I never quite have the clothes for such things and have to borrow this thing or that in order to make myself look halfway presentable as Italian and African weddings are quite extravagant affairs. Having been surprised with wedding invitations at other times, I have left hanging in Aldo’s closet a few items, like a gray pair of slacks and a tie. This time I had to borrow a royal blue jacket which I kept unbuttoned for rather obvious reasons. Italians are not as “portly” (the polite word) as I am.

Under the Cedar of Lebanon

At four in the afternoon we arrived at a gorgeous villa where an hour later a beautiful Columbian-Italian girl would be married to an Irish fellow. This happens quite often as the Italians and Irish have some attraction and affinity for one another.

I have known Marcela for a number of years but am more acquainted with her parents, Luciano and Marilene, since Marcela has been living and working in London for several years.

I knew that this would be a big deal and felt privileged to be asked to speak, knowing that half of the congregation on that sunny afternoon would be either unbelievers or religious but not necessarily Christians. I was sure that most would simply want my part to be over with rather quickly so we could have the wedding vows and get on to the reception. Yet, I saw this as a splendid opportunity. Having been given about fifteen to twenty minutes with translation, I couldn’t say much. Still, when it was my turn I took high ground, speaking on the “Mystery of Marriage” from Ephesians 5. I relied on two metaphors, the body and the bride, and wrapped a clear presentation of the gospel in, around, and through it. All the while I was speaking, I could sense that the message was being well received and hitting its mark. At the end of the proceedings I had many new friends with invitations to England and Rome. Tom and Marcela’s friends are all very warm and open-hearted.

   

The surroundings were lovely, with the vows being exchanged under a two-hundred-year-old Cedar of Lebanon that stretched over the entire gathering, providing a cool shade in a rather warm day. Later there were a number of food and drink tents with the finest in Parmesan cuisine. Though I wasn’t able to stay for the dinner and other festivities that ran long into the night, I was told that the reception dinner was the best one could hope for, laden with local cuisine.

Pastors Aldo and Mariela Cerasino and daughter Rebecca

While I was attending this affair Jeanne stayed back at the Cerasino’s getting some rest and packing us up for our trip back to Oslo on Monday morning.

Entry 28 / Collecchio, Italy

Michela, Anna and Jeanne

After at least eight or more years in the same city I have accumulated a lot of friends. It is rumoured that it is not until you are invited into an Italian home are you really considered a friend and not and simply an acquaintance.

Anna, her husband Stefano and daughter Michela are friends for several years now and not only mine but friends of my children Amy, John and their kids as well. On Saturday afternoon we were picked up in Corcagnano and taken some ten minutes to the south here they live on the edge of the Apinnine mountains which separates the Po Valley from Florence and Tuscany.

Inside Torrechiara

We enjoyed the lunch and then went further into the mountains to visit Torrechiara, one of the best preserved castles in all of Italy.

Entry 27 / Wish we had a picture

Love is a difficult thing to photograph

Sometimes we are privileged to get to see Bible stories come to life for us. In Italy, Tony and I were taken by our friend Francesco to see his family doctor in a suburb of Parma. She is a Christian doctor who warmly welcomed us in Italian and carried out her examination while Francesco and Mariela translated. For about two weeks prior, I had been experiencing symptoms related to inflammation in my lungs – coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath that always grew worse at night. As the doctor checked everything out, I was struck by her compassion and concern for me. She spent at least an hour with me and decided to give me a cortisone shot as well as two new prescriptions to try to alleviate some of my discomfort. As we were leaving we tried to pay her, but she refused. She said she wanted to bless us in Jesus’ name and would not hear of payment for her services. We reluctantly put our money away and headed out the door to take the prescriptions to the pharmacy to fill. Only after we drove away did we discover that she had put in enough cash in the envelope with the prescriptions to pay for them. In fact, we had money left over after they were filled! Our “Good Samaritan” doctor proved in such a practical way how God is looking after us on our trip and how He uses His body to minister to one another in Christian love. Once Tony and I got back from our side trip to Monterosso to celebrate our anniversary, I had to return to this same doctor to be checked again. Since my lungs had not improved, she gave me another cortisone shot and started me on some antibiotics. Again, no payment for the office call, and she provided the cash for my new prescriptions. It all seemed too much, too extravagant, according to worldly standards. But she saw it as a chance to lavish her love for Jesus on one of His own. How could we refuse her that joy? Others in Italy poured out their time and energy and resources on us while we were there … we especially thank Aldo and Mariela, Francesco and Alessia, Anna and Stefano. For them and for our Good Samaritan doctor, may they be encouraged by this Scripture: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Hebrews 6:10).

Entry 25 / Jeanne and the Torta Fritta Party

The Parmesean Countryside

One of the highlights for me in Italy was the opportunity to speak to a group of women from the church one beautiful Sunday afternoon. There were a few non-believers too who came as guests. We gathered at a country home that offers meals in a lovely outdoor setting. We looked out on green fields and cows grazing not far away. In the distance we could see the outline of the mountains just south of Parma. They sang a few songs and prayed before Mariela invited me to speak. My friend Alessia served as my translator.

If you’ve never spoken in a situation requiring translation, let me tell you, it’s a challenge. You have to know how long to make each phrase to enable the translator to catch up with you, as well as keep the next thought you want to say in mind as you wait your turn. You have no way of knowing how you are being received, because there is no reaction to what you say in English. The experience helped me better appreciate what missionaries and foreign speakers face when invited into another culture to share the Gospel!

My topic was “Knowing God” and I began by sharing how, from a small child, I had always wanted to know God, but couldn’t figure out how to find Him. I thought if I was a really “good girl” – went to church, obeyed my parents, pleased my teachers and other authority figures, etc. – I would earn His approval. But it was through the difficulties that later came into my life that I finally understood that I was a sinner, and it was through my need for a Savior that I finally came to know God. Only when I was willing to humble myself and admit that I could not be good by my own efforts was I ready and able to know Him.

Some were very touched by the circumstances I shared from my life that helped me see my sinful heart. I stressed the importance of being real and authentic in our relationship with God and how we can live in freedom through His grace. When they were given the opportunity to ask questions afterwards, many were hungry to know more. After my talk, we all enjoyed torta fritta (a special Italian treat) and different kinds of cake while chatting at our tables. I appreciated the women who used the little English they knew to try to converse with me. I walked away feeling very tired but also very blessed by the experience.

Entry 24 / Sunday Morning, Parma

An international church with many nationalities represented

After a big night that ran late we knew that Sunday morning might have fewer than the usual congregation of 150 to 170 in attendance. This may not seem like many from an American perspective but when the average “church” is around thirty with little or no conversional growth, an evangelical church family of two-hundred is envied. It is especially exciting when there is an understanding of the “priesthood of every believer.” This brings vitality and enthusiasm and is quite unusual when contrasted to the top down, controlling spirit that dominates so many of the few struggling congregations in Italy. In my view, evangelical churches have been unintentionally imprinted by the Roman spirit of clerical domination. For this reason, I look forward to the breath of fresh air I always experience when I am here with my dear friends that I have come to know over the last seven years.

Emanuele filled with joy

For me, Sunday mornings are always the big events of my stay in Parma. I love to preach to this audience who are ready to hear. This Sunday, I preached on 1st Kings 8:38-39, “The Plague of the Heart… The High-Cost of Sin Management.” I have another name for the message, “Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen and My Mole.” I had also tried this one out in Norway with good response so I thought I’d give it a shot here.

Some of the altar response on Sunday morning

I like itinerant ministry for this reason. When I was a pastor, I had to preach something fresh every week. If the Lord gave me a good message (a burden of the heart) I was stuck. I could preach it once and then have to shelve it. I have about a thousand sermons in my archives – sermons that I have only preached once. As an Itinerant I can wait until I feel something downloaded by the Holy Spirit and then preach the life out of it until God moves me on with a new angle. I think I have preached my best messages yet during the past four years. This is one of those messages.

When it was my turn and with Mariela at my side translating I preached my heart out. At the invitation quite a number of people (about ten) responded by coming to the altar and others came later for individual counseling. Several were saved and others restored after years away from the Lord.

I don’t always see the fruit of my ministry. People like Johnny and Katie who got marvelously converted. What a story! You can see regeneration on their faces and the light of life in their eyes. There are a host of others that claim conversion through various messages preached here. I am blessed.

We here in Parma are not alone. Though there are not grand moves of God being reported there are a number of churches that are seeing huge breakthroughs and conversions. Perhaps, and I am pretty sure of this, Parma is regarded as one of the “hot spots” for evangelical faith in northern Italy.

We have Africans!

We are now thinking of building a church building visible from the A-1, the main Autostrada that runs between Milano and Bologna. It is our hope to lift up the name of Jesus for all to see. I will be calling on my friends and acquaintances to help. Parma, though rich in faith is economically stretched so we will need to invite many others to participate in this venture of capturing Italy by the grace that is in Jesus alone.

Entry 23 / Worship Party, Parma, Italy

Arrival in Italy

We arrived in Parma on Wednesday evening from Norway and the Milan Bergamo airport. Since Jeanne had not been feeling well we slowed down our pace knowing that the weekend would be packed with events. On Thursday we did some house keeping. We did our laundry and went to Parma for a short time just to see the city again. This was pretty much our first and last venture to the city center during the entire time we were there.

Worship Party

Some of the faces at the Worship Party

When it came Saturday, the entire day was given to getting ready for a major outreach. The young people (ranging in ages from 13 to 25) put together drama, music, video testimonies and had gone around inviting their friends.

Recognition and appreciation of the youth led Worship Party

The event had been scheduled for eight in the evening but it was quite latin to see the clock on the screen countdown from five minutes only to be started over when it reached eight pm. This happened three times so at twenty past eight, Jeanne and I wondered if countdown clocks really mattered. No doubt, someone had picked this idea up from an American church where things do start on time. When I later brought this up someone defensively said, “We were all ready but the crowd had not come yet.” By 8:20 we began with every seat filled and at least two-hundred in attendance. More than half of those had never been in the church before. In about an hour and half of cute and clever presentations, I was asked to deliver a message and though we gave no altar call or opportunity for a response, it was clear that the message had impact. I spoke on, “The Core Idea.” Basically, the idea was substitutionary atonement and since “atonement” is difficult to explain we went with “adequate payment which satisfies”. With lots of windows (illustrations), people seemed to get it.