The Train God
Originally published October 30, 2011
I recently caught a train in a village in northern Italy. The title of this post refers to an old announcement on the Italian trains in which the English translation instructed passengers that if they have any any problems or questions to tell the “Train God.” (I believe they were simply mispronouncing the word “guard,” but the correct translation, of course, would be “conductor.”)
Many times the small towns have no ticket office, so you have to buy your ticket on the train. So I needed to buy my ticket from the conductor, and most of the time the conductor can be found at the front of the train, riding in the cab with the engineer. I walked to the front of the train and knocked on the door of the cab. All the Italian train personnel wear the same uniform, and I couldn’t see past him into the cab, so I didn’t know that I was speaking to the engineer when I asked to buy a ticket. Hearing that my Italian was English-accented, he cracked a small smile and said, “Where are you from?” I answered as all Texans do: “I’m from Texas,” not America, but Texas. The smile spread across his face and he said, “Come in and tell me all about Texas.”
He turned out to be the engineer, and he had been driving the train alone. He sat in the engineer’s seat and indicated the co-pilot’s seat. Then he pushed a lever, and as the train slowly started down the track, he peppered me with questions about Texas (in Italian):
Does everyone carry guns in Texas? Not everyone, but many do. Even the women? Oh, yes, some women carry a tiny revolver in their purse. Etc. I told him about ranches and cattle, and oil, the cusine: Tex-Mex and barbecue (properly spelled BBQ in Texas), the extremely changeable weather in Texas, and about the drought and recent fire that had destroyed my brother’s house along with about 1/3 of the houses in our little town.
As we spoke, his eyes were on me, not on his driving. But the train just followed the curve and switches set for it on the tracks. An audio signal told him as we entered each station, so that he only had to move a lever to tell the train to slow to a stop, and another to open and then close the doors. It was as animated a conversation as I’ve ever had with anyone. And because he was relaxed about operating the train, I didn’t worry about it either.
As we came close to exhausting the subject of Texas, I became the one asking him questions about operating the train, which he had been doing since 1985, when he had moved to Milan from Messina on the island of Sicily. He told me his name was Alfredo. But despite my interest and curiosity, he was less interested in talking about himself or his work. He asked me what I was doing in Italy, and how it was that my Italian was so good. I told him that I’m a missionary, I gave him my card, and told him about Jesus. His interest perked up, and he declared himself a good Catholic, while noting that I’m probably Protestant. I said that I am, but that Jesus is more important than religion. He smiled in toothy agreement.
This was when the conductor got onto the train and entered the cab. He didn’t seem surprised to see me in the cab. I told him that I needed to buy a ticket, so he sold me a ticket. Since there were only the two seats in the cab, and we were nearing my station anyway, I shook both their hands, wished them well, and went to find a seat with the other passengers.
I exited the train at my station, and as I passed the cab I knocked on the window and waved a final goodbye to Alfredo, who waved back enthusiastically. Then I gave a big thanks to God, Who knew that I would love a ride in the cab of a train.
I love my work! And my Boss is the BEST!
Originally published November 17, 2011
In October I went to a 24/7 celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in Kalisz, Poland. For a whole week, worship teams from all over Europe played non-stop worship music round the clock: from solemn hymns to rocking praise and everything in between, with lots of dance, prayer, prophecy, scripture reading, and healings. It was an amazing time, but for me, the thing that kept coming back was the table.
As we started the week, the Pastor explained that the Feast of Tabernacles is not just a Jewish feast, as we have always thought, but the Lord’s feast. Of course, it’s not a requirement, as it was under the law, but an invitation from God to come to His table and celebrate His goodness.
“Come to His table!” Those words resonated within me. Several months ago, I visited a church in northern Italy where a friend of mine was the guest preacher. When he was finished with the message, he gave three invitations: the first was for those wanting to receive God’s free gift of salvation. And some people responded to that invitation. The second was for those wanting prayer, and more people responded to that invitation. The third was for those wanting “more from God.” I shot out of my seat like a bullet. The Pastor of this church and his wife prayed for me. Then the Pastor held my hand and looked deeply into my eyes. He said, “God has put a big table in front of you, and on it is everything you could ever want or need. All you have to do is take it.”
Wow! Now that’s encouraging! So when the Polish Pastor said that God was inviting us to come to His table and celebrate His goodness, I could barely contain my excitement. I spent as much time as I could in the sanctuary, worshiping God that week.
One evening in the sanctuary I started thinking about my task of speaking to the American churches about missions in Europe. Those of you who have followed my Faith Trip know that I’ve had a tendency to run ahead of God. The enormity of this task suddenly weighed on me. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because, as my Pastor in Texas says, “If your ministry doesn’t scare you, then it’s not from God.” Meaning that God doesn’t call the equipped, but equips the called. I was overcome with recognition of my own inability, and need for His help in this. I began weeping uncontrollably, desperately begging God to help me, to set up appointments for me, and to speak through me. After about 30 – 40 minutes, God reminded me of the table. I said, “That’s great, Lord, but I don’t want anything, I want You!” And He gently responded: “I am in everything that is on the table. I am on the table! I am everything that is on the table.” And with that, I began to feel reassured and comforted.
Early the next morning I had a dream in which I saw fire fall from Heaven and a path was lighted in the darkness. In the dream I held back because there was another person there, and I thought that person should lead. But that person couldn’t see the lighted path like I could. That’s when I woke up knowing that God would lead me through these next five months as I speak to the American churches.
This morning, as I was remembering the table, I remembered a rhema word that God had given me many years ago. [A rhema word is a word from the Bible specifically for you.] At that time my son was living on his own and experiencing many difficulties including losing his job and losing his apartment. Without an apartment, he also didn’t have a phone where we could call him. After not hearing from him for a couple of months, I was so worried I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t function. Early one morning after another sleepless night I was having my regular Bible and prayer time. At the time I was reading through the Bible for the sixth or seventh time, so that day’s passage was one I had read before. It was in Ezekiel, where the angel is leading Ezekiel through the Temple in Heaven. The angel is measuring and explaining everything, and Ezekiel is writing it all down. Then in chapter 41 they enter the Holy of Holies where there is a wooden altar. In verse 22 the angel says to Ezekiel, “This is the table that is before the Lord.” Those words jumped off the page, and God told me: “Put him on the table and leave him with Me.”
It sounds easy to do, but relinquishing control like that is actually pretty hard, and in those days (about 17 years ago) my faith was still in its young phase. But when I finally did put him on the table, I felt relieved. Every time I started to worry again, I put him back on the table. A few days later, he finally called, with the news that he had gotten a job and found a place to live.
So the lesson I’ve learned is that God has a big table full of blessings, healing, renewed relationships, guidance, provision, etc. I’ve learned that God is in each gift that is on the table, that He is on the table. And we are invited to come take whatever we need from the table.
God is good!
Originally published November 30, 2011
I am a missionary serving in Europe. My ministry requires a great deal of travel because I need to visit missionaries all over the continent. Since I travel by public transportation, I prefer to travel light. I live out of a backpack, sleeping on couches most of the time. Living simply is both a must and my inclination.
I live in Europe most of the year, but I try to get home to spend the holidays with my family. Whenever I return to the US there is a period of culture shock and adjustment to the American lifestyle. Since very few Americans live the Spartan lifestyle that I do, it’s likely that you don’t understand what I mean when I say that there is a period of culture shock and adjustment whenever I return to the US. Here are a few re-entry challenges:
- Cars – I use public transportation about 90 percent of the time when I’m in Europe. However, my home is in Texas, where things are so spread out that you’ve got to have a car. And the Texas climate plays a part in making walking or bike riding difficult. It’s almost always too blistering hot, too freezing cold, or so windy that you look like Marcel Marceau walking against the wind. It always takes me some time to adjust to driving everywhere, and walking a whole lot less.
- Television – It seems that there are televisions everywhere in the US these days. They are in grocery stores, in mechanic shops, in doctor’s waiting rooms, in restaurants, in airports, in shopping malls. Televisions blare just about everywhere you go. Television has become the ambient sound in the US. When I lived in the US 11 years ago, I was a television addict. But having gotten out of the TV habit, I sometimes wonder how on earth I had ever gotten anything done–especially writing. I’m not saying that television is evil. Like everything else (money, pain medication, food, etc.) it all depends on how you use it. But there are programs on TV that are definitely not spiritually uplifting, and some programs are being used by the evil one to erode the moral values of American society. It is important to use wisdom and godly judgment when deciding to spend time watching television, and particularly when allowing your children to watch TV. The constant, blaring presence of televisions everywhere leads to . . .
- Sensory Overload – Whenever I return to the US, I have a difficult time with sensory overload. There is simply too much information coming in. It’s not just the constant noise of televisions, but also people shouting into cell phones everywhere you go. A walk down any aisle in the grocery store is visually jarring, with 50 choices of shampoo, 75 choices of breakfast cereal, etc. And the detergent aisle of the grocery store doesn’t smell unpleasant, but simply has too many strong smells. I specifically mention the grocery store because all of these sensory elements can be found together at the grocery store. My first few trips to the grocery store are always challenging, and I try to get out as quickly as possible.
- Materialism – The mall is also a place where all of these sensory elements are found together. Because of that, I rarely ever go to the mall. I also avoid the mall because of rampant materialism. This is not to say that materialism doesn’t exist in Europe. In fact, much of Western Europe is very materialistic indeed. But my missionary lifestyle keeps me mostly separated from monuments to materialism like shopping malls.
And that brings me to Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving was originally named Black Friday because it was the busiest shopping day of the year, being the traditional start to the Christmas shopping season. However, Black Friday has evolved into something more sinister, where materialism has become violent and greed has eclipsed giving. The irony is that in an economy where unemployment is high and people are worried about their savings and investments–if they even have savings and investments–they still spent a record-breaking amount this year on Black Friday. And the local TV station reported that most of the midnight sales of television sets purchased locally were not bought as gifts.
A friend who owns a restaurant told me over lunch today that there was actually a stabbing at a local discount chain store during the midnight Black Friday sale. A police officer who had responded to the stabbing told her about it. I searched the newspaper for a report of the stabbing, but it had somehow been kept out of the news. Apparently the store management didn’t want that item reported. One of my mom’s friends had been there and confirmed that there were police cars and an ambulance, but she hadn’t seen or heard what it was about.
I can’t help but think of Jesus and the money-changers at the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-16; John 2:14-16). Christmas was originally a holy day–a day to remember the greatest gift of all: God’s Son, who gave His life to save us. And celebrating Christmas by giving gifts was a reflection of Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” (Acts 20:35). Even though I am enjoying being with my family, this Christmas season, I am feeling very saddened by the thing that Christmas has become in America today.
Psalm 4:6-8 (The Message) says:
Why is everyone hungry for more? “More, more,” they say.
I have God’s more-than-enough,
More joy in one ordinary day
Than they get in all their shopping sprees.
At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep,
For you, God, have put my life back together.
Carbon Monoxide Detector
Originally published December 21, 2011
I am in Texas, staying with my mom for the holidays. Mom & I had a close call yesterday. Mom woke up chilled at about 4AM and turned the heat up, then about half an hour later the carbon monoxide detector went off. We were both so sleepy, we were ready just to unplug the thing because we couldn’t smell anything. But then I said, “Well, maybe we should call the fire department, just in case.” They came right out, and found that the furnace was leaking gas.
The furnace is closest to my room, and in fact, the furnace intake is in my room. I’ve been sleeping with my door shut, and just the day before I had woken up with a bad headache and feeling listless and nauseated. We think the thing had leaked some that night, but the leak had finally gotten bad enough to detect yesterday morning. Then it hit us: we could have both died, if not for the carbon monoxide detector.
My dad had bought carbon monoxide detectors for all his rent houses as well as for their own. I told Mom, “It’s like Daddy was watching over us. Daddy saved our lives!” Long story short: Mom will be buying herself a new furnace for Christmas.
If you don’t have a carbon monoxide detector, buy one! This made a believer out of me! I’m thanking God, and really glad to be alive!
Originally published December 22, 2011
This year I am suffering from the same Christmas ailment as in years past: I have a severe earworm. Wikipedia defines an earworm as “a piece of music that sticks in one’s mind so that one seems to hear it, even when it is not being played.” Since about 90% of what I listen to is Christian music, earworms don’t bother me, and can often lead me into spontaneous worship. That’s wonderful, like a surprise kiss from God.
Aside from Christian music, earworms are horrible. I hate U2’s music because their songs invariably turn into earworms in my head. The gypsy “musicians” that ride the subway in Milan play the shortest possible loop of “Lady of Spain” (or “Besame Mucho”) over and over and over and over again. I’m not a violent person, but it makes me want to throw their accordians under the train.
Having lived in Milan for most of the past 10 years, I’ve been repeatedly trapped and tortured by the gypsy players. And that experience taught me the antidote to earworms: you’ve got to replace the offending song with another song. The antidote song has to be something at least as lively as the one you’re seeking to evict. But you don’t want the antidote song to evolve into an earworm, either. My antidote of choice is the theme to the 60’s Batman TV show: “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-Bat-man!” I don’t know why it works, but it does. True, it’s not a great piece of music by anybody’s standards, but it kills the earworm and vanishes without a trace.
The worst earworm songs by far are Christmas songs. I’m not talking about “Silent Night” or “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” Such beautiful songs are far too polite to overstay their welcome in the mind. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” knows when to stop, why then can’t “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”? There are several of them, and you know the offenders. I only have to mention their names to turn them into potential earworms in your mind, too (sorry!).
Christmas music is unavoidable this time of year. The other day I was in the grocery store and “Jingle Bell Rock” began to insipidly “chime in jingle-bell-time.” I wanted to rip open the paper towels in my basket, stuff my ears, and run screaming from the store. Instead I turned to my mother and said, “This song drives me crazy.” She nodded in agreement and added, ” ‘Sleigh Ride’ just makes me frantic.” I giggled because it’s true, that is one manic, hyperactive piece of so-called music. “I also hate ‘Little Drummer Boy’,” she confided.
“Little Drummer Boy” is so pa-rum-pah-petitive it could be a Reggae song. But it does deserve special honor for having the worst Christmas lyric ever: “The ox and lamb kept time.” Really? The ox and lamb kept time? I picture them chewing their cuds like a gum-chewing teenager plugged into her MP3 player.
I am looking forward to Christmas with all the anticipation of any child because once this holiday is finally past, we have blessed relief from Christmas music–at least until Halloween. Meanwhile, if you catch me singing the Batman Theme Song to myself, you’ll know why!
Try to have a “Holly Jolly Christmas”! Despite the music, this really is the best time of the year!
Serving up Love on a Plate
Originally published December 25, 2011
I am staying with my mom while I’m in the US, and for Christmas this year it will be just the two of us. So Mom suggested that we volunteer at the Salvation Army, serving free Christmas dinners. I loved the idea.
So she signed us up. Yesterday she got a call from the local newspaper, asking for a brief telephone interview. She was delighted to see her quote in the newspaper this morning. But she was dismayed that the reporter had failed to mention her daughter, the missionary. Honestly, I think Mom is more impressed about her daughter the missionary than anybody else, but it is good to have a loyal cheering squad–even if it is only one person!
This morning dawned frosty cold, with a biting wind. Mom and I went down to the Salvation Army about an hour before serving time. A volunteer signed us in and gave us nametags. There were about fifteen holiday volunteers, from age ten to retirees. We were all given hairnets and disposable gloves. Our fellow volunteers were exceptionally nice folks. However, there was little time for getting to know one another.
Mom and I were assigned pie duty. We cut almost 200 slices of pie, topped them with whipped topping and put them onto rolling carts. While we readied our pies, others began serving iced tea and turkey dinners to the folks who came in. We rolled our carts from table to table offering the diners a slice of pie: pumpkin, apple, or southern pecan. I drove my cart solo, but Mom had enlisted the help of the youngest volunteer: ten-year-old Amanda.
One diner was unhappy with the choice of pie given to him, and threw it down. Amanda was amused by the incident, but her mother (who saw it) was upset. Mostly, it was a pleasant experience. One woman even made a point of personally telling me “thank you!” Another asked about how to volunteer for next year.
We hustled our legs off, getting high on what Mom calls “warm fuzzies.” Those of us who enjoy plenty have much to be thankful for–especially at this time of year. Mom says that it takes nothing from her Christmas, it just adds. I couldn’t agree more!
How to volunteer to serve Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at your local Salvation Army: Call the local Salvation Army office at least two weeks ahead of time. They will tell you when and where to show up. Easy as pie!
Originally published February 7, 2012
Sunday night at my home church’s Super Bowl party I had a moment with one of my pastors. She told me how poorly she had slept the night before, so I prayed for her.
This is what I do in ministry: I listen and respond in prayer. The only difference is that my mission field is Europe, so that is where the ministry mostly happens. She was very moved by my simple prayer, and the fact that I cared enough to pray on the spot for her.
In praying for her again today, I realized that I’m really glad I’m called as a missionary, and not a pastor. Pastors probably have the most difficult ministry in all the kingdom of God because they are constantly sought after. There are always some people in the church who seek them out for prayer and counseling on every single issue in their lives. Pastors encounter those who can be dysfunctional in their relationships and even mentally or emotionally unstable and demanding. Pastors know better than anybody that not everybody who attends church is seeking a closer relationship with God.
Additionally, being a pastor is like drawing a big bull’s eye on yourself because you are the enemy’s primary target. We don’t like to talk about him, but he’s very real. And if he can take down the pastor, he can potentially destroy many others as well.
Wise pastors construct a godly team of people that they can delegate to handle the day-to-day issues and problems of the flock. In fact, delegating is found in both the Old and New Testaments (Exodus 18:13-26 and Acts 6:1-6). Indeed, my pastors are very wise. They are also very accessible and caring people, refusing to hide themselves behind a wall of leaders, as some pastors do. I am not criticizing pastors who are less accessible, but rather, stating a sad fact. I have no doubt that many have been forced to retreat from interactions that could jeopardize their ministry and time with their families.
How can you care for your pastors?
- Pray for him or her. People are always seeking their pastors for prayer; instead keep your pastor in prayer daily. Pray for your pastor’s health, safety, family, finances (many are forced to work a second job), relationships, ministry (guidance and wisdom for leading the church), and anything else that you know about or are lead to pray about.
- Respect the “process” your church has for communication. When I was called as a missionary, I contacted my pastors directly for the very first time because I knew that I would need the support of my church. If I had been less sure of my call, I would have first talked with my small group leaders about it. Be aware of the process in your church. In some cases, you should talk to your small group leaders, or perhaps an elder or a deacon, and let them talk to the pastor.
- Be a friend. When you do have a moment with your pastor, say something encouraging and/or supportive. Let your pastor know that you are someone who cares for them. One thing I frequently do is quote my pastor from the sermon. In fact, I did it again Sunday night—and the pastor overheard me. I just smiled and said, “Yes, I really do quote you all the time!”
- Get involved. Remember what a tremendous burden the pastor carries. It is unrealistic to expect the pastor to do everything in the church. Your pastor is always praying for you, along with all the others of your congregation. Your pastor is also seeking God’s wisdom and guidance for the church. There is so much more to pastoring than just giving a sermon on Sunday. If your church has a team of intercessors, consider joining it. If you are not involved at your church, pray about how God wants you to be involved. My pastor says, “We’re not called to go to church, but to be the church.” (Yes, I really do quote the pastor!)
How is God calling you to be the church?
Originally published February 16, 2012
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’ ” Leviticus 19:1-2
This passage comes in the middle of the Bible’s longest list of “thou shalt not’s.” This week I got very sad news that my kitty had to be put down. But even sadder was word from a missionary in Italy who told me of a church she had visited where all the thou shalt not’s are still imposed—with several additions.
You may be wondering how that is sadder news than the death of my beloved kitty. It is sadder news because my kitty had a good life. She was staying with trusted friends who loved her. When they learned of an inoperable tumor in her lungs, they did not allow her to suffer.
Yet all the freedoms given to us by grace through the death of Jesus Christ have been denied to these dear believers. They live as slaves or prisoners of their faith, instead of living as beloved and forgiven children of God. They have been told that they cannot possibly understand the Bible without a theologian to interpret it for them. The pastor of this church called it presumption to claim the Biblical promises. Men are separated from women during the worship services, and the women must wear veils in church. The teens were forbidden to fraternize with unbelievers.
All this is so tragic. No wonder so many of Europe’s people grasp at New Age, Buddhism, Witchcraft, or anything else that seems to offer both freedom and spirituality. Often they just give up on God altogether, expecting to find freedom in a hedonistic lifestyle. Slavery is slavery, whether it’s to sin or to human-imposed rules.
Find true freedom in Jesus Christ. And when the bad stuff happens, like the death of a beloved pet, you can have peace in your heart. Let’s pray that the pastor of that church receives a revelation from the Lord about freedom, even the freedom to occasionally slip.