Confetti, Silly String, Masks, and Streamers Everywhere!

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Milan has just had its Carnivale celebration.  Carnivale is the last hurrah before the carnal deprivation of Lent, and should technically be celebrated on Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday.

In Italy, however, Carnivale is celebrated for two weeks.  Unlike the nearly naked and drunken celebrations of Carnivale in Brazil or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnivale here is mostly for children.  Confetti, Silly String in aerosol cans, streamers and costumes can be found in most every market and shop during the month of February.  And a two week celebration means that a child can celebrate Carnivale with her grandparents in Parma one weekend and celebrate at home in Milan the next weekend.

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One February I was in the small town of Iseo, Italy by the like-named lake.  I was tired, so I sat on a bench near a place where the sidewalk narrowed.  There was a boy about 3-4 years old in costume.  His dad was also tired so they shared my bench.  The boy had a bag of confetti and every time he saw another child approaching he pulled out a fistful and—POW!—showered the other kid with confetti.  The giggling that followed was positively contagious.  Then he would load up again and wait for his next victim.  We passed an hour or so this way.

February of 2010 I was in Venice.  I would never have deliberately gone to Venice during Carnivale because I don’t like being in crowds, but since I was there and it would probably be my only chance to do so, I went to St. Mark’s Square and watched the celebration.  Venice’s Carnivale is quite a spectacle, with some of the most opulent and elaborate costumes I have ever seen.  It reminded me of the costume party scene in Hitchcock’s “It Takes a Thief.”  I was told that some people save up all year for their Carnivale costumes, and I can believe it.  But it was a also an event for children.  At one point, I found myself near a family with two children.  The little boy kept tossing confetti on his little sister, who was too little to understand or appreciate the fun.  Finally he got frustrated with her and turned and threw confetti on me.  “Whee!”  I giggled every time he did it, which made him keep doing it until his mother stopped him.  I think she must have thought I was just being kind, but really I was having fun.

The very next day was when God told me about my ministry to Europe.  I like to think that God will use me and the rest of the missionaries in Europe to bring revival, and then we’ll celebrate in a party that never has to end.

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Yesterday celebrations ended here in Milan—just when I had gotten used to riding the subway with fairy princesses and Power Rangers!  All that’s left is Carnivale’s detritus: confetti and spent streamers all over the ground, and silly string going gooey all over the walls.  The city is really good about cleaning up after Carnivale, so there will be hardly a trace of its silly fun.  I don’t normally mind the winter, but February really needs Carnivale’s fun.  I think God knew that!

A Clanging Cowbell

This last birthday the best present I got was from God: He gave me my singing voice.  I’m not saying that I sing like Maria Callas or Judy Collins.  I’m not even sure that I can sing on key, but now I have the courage and freedom to sing—into a microphone!—without fear, and that’s a miracle.  You can read about it in my latest book, “Laughing in My Dreams,” available through Lulu.com (http://www.lulu.com/shop/alisa-k-brown/laughing-in-my-dreams/paperback/product-20585131.html).

This was at the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) in Kalisz, Poland, where the local church celebrates in praise and worship 24 hours a day over 7 days.  This past fall was my second time there, and for the second time, I was the lone representative of Italy—me, a foreign resident, representing Italy.  But I did my best to represent Italy, bringing my Italian flag and singing as strongly as possible whenever I heard a song I know in Italian.

Upon returning home after my first time at Tabernacles I talked to a few local pastors and worship leaders about taking a team to represent Italy.  The response was underwhelming, very discouraging.  And after God gave me back the freedom to sing, I thought perhaps I would get a guitar and see if I could learn enough to represent Italy in worship from the platform.  Interestingly enough, the first person I mentioned this to said that she had told her son just that morning that he should give me his guitar, since he no longer has time or the inclination to play.  I have a guitar now—one that I’m too intimidated to even try to tune (not that I remember how to tune a guitar!).

While I was in the US for Christmas break I went to a music shop and bought a tambourine and a cowbell.  My sons laughed at me for buying a cowbell, but I love the sound of cowbells.  And I love the idea of keeping time with a cowbell instead of clapping hands.  Plus, it’s small and easy to travel with, which is a definite plus in my traveling lifestyle.

It is the best cowbell ever--it says so right on the sticker!

It is the best cowbell ever–it says so right on the sticker!

When I returned to Italy, I mentioned once again (this time to Pastor Fabio) that I would like to bring an Italian worship group to Poland for Tabernacles.  Unlike his reaction last year, this time he was very enthusiastic about the idea.  I am hoping that everything works out, and that I can bring the worship group from the Biella church.  But even if they don’t come, I will be there with my Italian flag, my cowbell, and my tambourine, representing Italy the best that I can.

Wafers that Doug & Jane (Blessing We Are Blessed) brought me--Kalisz is famous for them!

Wafers that Doug & Jane (Blessing We Are Blessed) brought me–Kalisz is famous for them!

Blessing We Are Blessed

I’ve just had friends, Doug and Jane, come to visit me from Poland on their way to Spain.  I was hoping that during their visit they could help me with information for the next Feast of Tabernacles.  Worship groups from all over Europe come and bring praise in their own languages—and this continues 24 hours a day for the 7 days of the Feast.  Ever since attending Tabernacles two years ago, it has been my desire to bring an Italian worship team.  In my small way, I did bring Italian worship, singing in Italian when I heard a song I know in Italian.  But it’s not the same.

Doug and Jane did more for me than just provide the necessary information.  They are people who understand my calling and desire to encourage missionaries.  They brought gifts, designed to encourage: books, magazine, and newspaper in English, a pretty coaster with the words, “The Lord is faithful,” a pretty shopping bag in a traditional brightly colored Polish design, and tasty wafers for which Kalisz is famous.  Their visit was so encouraging.  I felt very pampered and loved.

They wanted to see the city, but not the traditional tourist spots.  It was such fun to take them to the places that I consider special, and let them see my Milan.  They also wanted to meet my friends.  They met Paula, who worked for me by buying the furnishings to make the apartment livable—not just livable, but very comfortable.  And they met Sally, the mastermind behind GoMissions (http://gomissions.eu/).  Doug and Jane also encouraged Paula and Sally.  It was a wonderful few days of friendship, prayer, networking, and strategizing.  But it was also a fun time, eating delicious food, talking, laughing, and relaxing.

Through Doug and Jane’s visit, I was able to see how my visits to missionaries encourage them.  Even encouragers need encouragement from time to time!  God is good!

A Parade!

This morning I awoke at the house of my friends Roxie and Daniel, who live in Biella.  Roxie is called la orsa che abbraccia—the hugging bear.  She has earned this name because she gives big, warm bear hugs that make you feel very welcome and loved.  Outside the window, it seemed unusually bright for six AM.  It had snowed overnight, and as I write this, it is continuing to snow.  Roxie fixed me a fantastic (and fantastically big) breakfast and a sack lunch to take with me on the train.  Then she and Daniel drove me to the train station.

What a difference being in the train station!  At their house we all praised God for the beautiful snow, which is a gift from Heaven to water the earth in winter.  But in the train station I have heard nothing but whining about the snow, the cold, and illnesses.  Of course, illnesses don’t come from cold weather, but from viruses.  Besides, as believers, we should never say, “I’ve got a cold (or the flu or whatever type of illness).”  Pastor Fabio’s sermon yesterday was about how when Jesus said, “It is finished,” and bowed His head, all the curses from original sin were paid for—including sickness.  If we can manage to wrap our heads around the idea that it has already been paid—all of it!—then we can truly begin to live the victorious life of true freedom in Christ.  These are the days of miracles and wonders, if we can only believe it.

On the train to Santhiá, where I am at this moment, it has continued to snow.  Here I have about an hour between trains.  No sooner did I sit down to wait, then I heard music.  It was a band marching down the street toward the city offices across the street from the train station.  On what most people here are lamenting as a dismal and cold winter day, there is a band celebrating something.  I grabbed my camera and took some pictures—the only person to do so.  Again, it seems like the contrast between believers and unbelievers is as plain as black and white, darkness and light.

The Bible tells us that the world will fall into ever darker darkness, but the beautiful thing about that is the contrast between darkness and light.  Therefore, go and be the light of the world that you were created to be.  The people lost in darkness will be attracted to the light of the Son like moths to a flame.  And if there’s no parade, start one!  Our celebration has only just begun! Parade on a snowy day

I Missed the Train, But Made it to the Divine Appointment

I have learned that when I pray to make it to a train, plane, or bus on time, but miss it anyway, it is because God has some higher reason.  And yesterday was no exception.  When my train arrived from Pescara, I had to go back to my apartment to pick up copies of my new book, “Laughing in My Dreams,” to take to friends who pray for me in Biella.  I give my books to people on my prayer team because it is their prayers that help me along in my ministry travels.

Of course, I did my best to make it to the train.  I had calculated that although the time would be tight, I should be able to make it.  However, I got to the train station just as the train was departing.  I said, “Thank You, Lord, for whatever reason I missed the train.  Your plans are always better than mine.”

There was another train an hour later.  Since I had waited at the train station for an hour, I was one of the first ones on the train.  All the seats filled up very quickly, and I wondered if one the people near me might be a divine appointment, but two of the people talked the whole time about people they know, and the young man who took the fourth seat immediately opened his computer and started working.  It was the same on the connecting train.  Pastor Fabio was going to pick me up at the station on the original train, but he had a Bible study to lead.  Instead, he sent Gabriel to pick me up at the train station.

I didn’t know Gabriel or Mary very well, just brief encounters over lunch months ago.  Gabriel started telling me about their ministry.  They are starting a shelter/soup kitchen for the street people of Biella.  Immediately I understood that this was my divine appointment for the day: Gabriel was feeling the weight of his ministry, but was discouraged because things didn’t seem to be moving along like he had hoped.  I felt the Holy Spirit rising up in me to encourage him that this is important work.  Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what I said.  That’s the way it usually is when the Holy Spirit speaks through me.  The words don’t go through my human brain, so as I speak, I’m hearing the words for the first time, and often I don’t remember afterwards what it was that I said.

And that’s the way it was yesterday.  I missed the train, but made it to my divine appointment right on time.  Every day is a new adventure if you don’t let the little things like a missed train get you down.

P.S.  After posting this last night, look what was in my inbox this morning: http://www.guideposts.org/faith/bible-resources/turn-disappointment-to-god-appointment?utm_source=Bible-Alive&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2013-2-11_nl_turn-disappointment-to-god-appointment.  God is good!

A Divine Appointment

Yesterday was a very full day of travel.  I started from Florence, where I had stayed the night with missionary friends, and went from there to the Abruzzo region on the Adriatic coast.  By choosing the less expensive, regional trains, I had to change trains twice.  The regional trains are less expensive because they are older and they stop in all the stations along the way.  So, travel which could have taken only a few hours, took six instead.  But the nice thing about slower travel is that I can catch a nice nap on the train, which I did.  I have learned not to fight the sleepy feeling if I don’t absolutely have to, and last night was a perfect example why.

When I arrived in Pescara, I went to the bus stop for the bus that would take me to the house of Bob and his family (Bob is the missionary there who I house-sat for during the last 2 summers—which you can read about in my book “Look, Listen, Love”).  I know other missionaries there, but because of the brevity of my visit, I hadn’t planned on visiting for more than a brief coffee or at least a phone call.  But God had other things in mind for me.

Not long ago, while I was still in North Carolina, I was inspired to start praying daily for divine appointments—both for myself and for my fellow missionaries.  As soon as I arrived I got a phone call from Betty, who had heard from Bob that I was arriving.  She and her husband are the other missionaries I had hoped to see, at least briefly.  She said, “Do you know Daisy of Rebirth Ministries?”  I told her that Daisy is a missionary I pray for daily, who I met at my home church in Milan a few years ago.  She told me that Daisy is in town for a women’s conference, and that if I wanted to go, she would come pick me up.  Of course I leapt at the opportunity.  I hadn’t seen Daisy for over a year, and had heard that she had moved to Rome.  This cut short my visit to Bob & his family, but we had a nice meal together and in our brief visit he caught me up on all the things that they are doing and things to be praying about.

Then after dinner, Betty, Daisy, and I went to the women’s conference.  Daisy is the founder of Rebirth Ministries, which helps stop domestic violence.  The focus of Rebirth is not only on educating and caring for women and children, but also on helping the abusers (which are not always men) to overcome rage issues and to find better ways of interacting than using fists.  Although the conference took place in a church, there were also women there, invited by friends, who were not believers.

Daisy shared her vision for Rebirth Ministries, and her personal story.  Daisy is from Argentina, and was twice widowed—one husband was one of the famed Desaparecidos “disappeared” persons, who was arrested and then simply vanished, never to be heard from again.  Alone, she raised two daughters and was called to Italy in 1994.  However, she didn’t immediately come to Italy, but prayed for Italy first, learned the language, and finished university.  During this time, the issue of domestic violence came to her attention.  When she put the call and the issue together, she understood why God wanted her in Italy, and so she came, forming Rebirth Ministries as a non-profit that meets in churches and schools throughout Italy.  The next step will likely be to bring Rebirth to the prisons.

In Italy, the danger of violence from strangers is very low, but domestic violence is unfortunately very high.  The police in bigger cities are beginning to respond to domestic calls, but in the small towns, they are still reluctant to interfere in “family” issues.  And even when the police arrest the abuser, the victim rarely maintains the courage to press charges, preferring to continue to try and make the marriage work.  In Italy, there is still a lot of shame attached to the issue of domestic violence because of the Catholic Church’s stance on divorce.  Italian women are encouraged by their priests to stay in abusive marriages, and often feel like failures if they cannot make the marriage work, make their husband stop drinking or using drugs, or stop seeking the company of other women.  And even among Protestant churches in Italy there is a lot of shame attached to divorce because the vast majority of Protestants in Italy are former Catholics.

One thing that Daisy shared was that many times when she speaks to groups like the one last night, someone invariably says, “But why Italy?  Surely domestic violence is a problem in Argentina, too.”  She admitted that it is, but much headway has been made in Argentina by others, whereas in Italy there is still much work to do.  As she spoke, I realized (not for the first time) that Daisy does have a true call to Italy.  She is being used mightily of God.

After Daisy spoke, Betty suggested that each person from the group give Daisy a brief word of feedback.  The overwhelming response was positive, and one young woman shared her story of abuse for the first time in her life.  It was very moving to see her tears, but also to hear the relief in her voice at finally being free to speak of it.  And the most beautiful thing of all was that this young woman was not a believer, but now that she has seen the love of Jesus in action, I have no doubt that she will make a decision for Christ.  Daisy spoke and prayed with her afterward, and arranged for follow-up counseling and care with the local church.

In a private moment I told Daisy about my personal observation that following Jesus always costs you something (He spoke of it in Matthew 19:29).  I told her that for me the cost is having left my adorable grandson.  But I encouraged her, saying, “But God always compensates me in the sweetest ways.  The first time I saw my grandson, when he was two months old, he laughed for the very first time—with his grandma!  And this visit, at eighteen months, he said ‘Grandma!’ for the very first time.  He sees his other grandma almost every day, but he called me Grandma first!”  Daisy was well able to relate because both of her daughters and all four of her grandchildren are far away in South America—the most recent was born two months premature just a week ago.  He weighs only one kilo—about two and a quarter pounds.  She is going to Brazil to visit Pedro, her newest grandson, next week.

I Will Make You Know

One of my favorite phrases in Italian is ti faccio verdere—literally “I will make you see,” or as we say in English, “I will show you.”  The first time I heard this phrase I didn’t like the implication of the literal translation as forcing someone to see something.  I could almost imagine keeping my eyes squeezed shut so that nobody could make me see something I don’t want to see.  But hearing the kind way this was said to me, I came to love this phrase and its fraternal twin: ti faccio sapere—“I will make you know,” or as we say in English, I will explain to you.

Last night I had the opportunity to reconnect with a friend and have dinner at his house.  Samuele is a well-traveled and sophisticated person who speaks English, but we always communicate in Italian.  As he shares more and more of his interesting life, I understand that some things really are more beautifully communicated in Italian.  It seems that the Italians can make language as delicious as they make food.

After a pleasant evening, Samuele walked me to the subway.  We found that the subway was closed and I had to take a substitute bus to a subway station three stops away.  As the bus passed the first subway station from Samuele’s house, I saw a fire truck.  I knew then that it was a suicide, which was later confirmed by the news.  That station where the man threw himself under a train is called De Angeli—“from the angels.”  But I don’t think he was hoping for angels to take him up to Heaven.  These subway suicides happen every so often in Milan—and more frequently since the financial crisis hit Italy.  And this is the fourth suicide in six months that has been done either by someone I know or by someone physically near me.

The increasing frequency of suicides is evidence of things that are happening in the spiritual realm.  The devil is working overtime to discourage people to the point of suicide.  And that’s easy enough for him to do with people whose faith is in their finances.

But I recently heard a sermon by Joseph Prince.  He said that we are wrong when we think (as we often do) that the devil starts messing up your health or your finances, and then we must pray and ask God to come in and make these things right again.  What he said was, “God is not running behind the devil, but it’s the devil that is running behind God.”  He said that the devil sees God pouring out blessings on your health or finances or work, and steps in to try and stop the blessings.  And what do we do?  We start worrying: Could these headaches be brain tumors? Am I about to lose my job?  And we toss and turn at night, trying to figure out how to go about controlling the damage—even when no real damage has been done.  Then he quoted:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:6-10

He said that many people think that the “thorn in his flesh” is some kind of illness, but Joseph Prince said that other places in the Bible where that term is used, it is always a person—and it appears to be here, too.  But literally it’s a “messenger of Satan,” a fallen angel (angels are mostly messengers).

Here’s the part that blew my mind: he said that just like Paul, our response to these irritations, this petty meddling of the devil should be to thank God for the blessings He is pouring out on us.  Stop whining and start worshiping, praising, thanking God for the blessings.  It’s counter-intuitive (and I love that!), but nothing will make the devil flee faster than praise, worship, and thanksgiving to God.  And then those blessings can really start to flow as God intended.

Joseph Prince explained the flow of blessings from God like a hose from God in Heaven to us here on earth.  The blessings are always flowing, flowing, flowing, but when we worry, for example, about our finances, then we are tying a knot in the hose and the blessings can’t flow.  That’s exactly what the devil wants!

It’s important that we keep our family, friends, and neighbors in our prayers.  But the devil’s interference in this world is not a reason to despair.  In fact, these are times when people need Jesus more than ever.  You might be the only Jesus that some of your co-workers and casual acquaintances may ever know.  Many Christians these days are shy about sharing their faith, afraid of being laughed at, called “politically incorrect” or “intolerant,” or of losing their job.  But what if you had the chance to tell someone about Jesus and give them the hope that can change their whole outlook from suicidal to joyful?  And what if you are the only person that God has given this chance to?  I will “make” you see Jesus!  I will make you know Jesus!

Feeling God’s Presence

You have searched me, Lord, and You know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise; You perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down; You are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue You, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before, and You lay Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Where can I flee from Your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to You.

For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are Your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—when I awake, I am still with You.

If only You, God, would slay the wicked!  Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
They speak of You with evil intent; Your adversaries misuse Your name.
Do I not hate those who hate You, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against You?
I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139

Greetings from my home base in Milan!

I had a very nice visit at my new part-time home in North Carolina—a great visit with family and friends, a good rest, and the opportunity to connect with new friends.  Each day I pray for divine appointments, both for myself and for the missionaries and pastors that I pray for daily.  Many of these new friends are the direct result of those divine appointments.

In one of my first encounters back home in Milan a man at a local church asked me to pray for him to “feel the presence of God.”  Of course, this made me extremely sad.  If he’s a believer, then he’s already got the presence of God—always.  It made me wonder if he’s being discipled at all because he should know that.  Unfortunately, because this was actually during the church service, I didn’t have time or the opportunity to explain all this to him or to his leaders, but instead just had a moment to pray, which I did.  I prayed that he would come to understand the omnipresence of God that has never left him and never will leave him.  Afterward, he left before I could explain anything.

This is sadly typical of the Church (the universal Body of Christ) in Italy.  They get hooked on that wonderful feeling of God’s presence, but have little understanding of God, Himself.  None of us “feels” God’s presence all the time.  That’s where faith is so important.  Faith is based on facts, not on feelings.  We must believe that He is right here with us at all times and through all circumstances.  Sometimes it feels like our prayers echo back off the ceiling unheard.  I have felt this especially in the midst of depression.  Read Psalm 139 to understand what the facts are.  Psalm 139 is an assurance not just of God’s presence, but of His intimate knowledge of each of us—especially believers.  He hears our prayers even before the words are formed on our lips.  More than that, Romans 8:26-27 tells us that the Holy Spirit searches our heart and intercedes (prays) for us according to God’s will.

If you are suffering from depression or otherwise not feeling God’s presence, read Psalm 139—in fact, read it aloud daily—and take comfort from it.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).  If God is on your side, that’s all you need to live a victorious life!