The Damned Cowards!

But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.  This is the second death, (Revelation 21:8, emphasis mine).

The first few times that I read Revelation 21:8, it just didn’t sink in.  Take a good look at who leads the list of people that are destined for hell: cowards!  When it finally dawned on me that cowards are going to hell (along with murderers, idolaters, liars, and the rest of the nasty crew), I wondered why.  After all, aren’t they already scared?

Then the Lord reminded me that courage is not about not having fear.  Courage is facing down the fear and triumphing over it.  Courage is not allowing fear to stop you when you know what you should do.

Courage is something I see every day in the missionaries and pastors of Europe.  While the rest of the world treats them as irrelevant, these brave men and women—and whole families, even!—take their faith to the nations.  Many of them have sold all their possessions to enter into the mission field.  Some have suffered hardships that have cost them dearly: health, marriages, and family death.

The cowardly are the ones who go to church, but don’t obey when God calls them to ministry.  In their amazing book, Experiencing God, Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King wrote that God invites you to join Him in work that He’s already doing, and that God’s invitation leads to a crisis of belief.  Joining God in His work requires major adjustments in your life.  But the thing that was hardest for me when I was working my way through Experiencing God was the chapter titled “Joining God Requires Obedience,” and especially the section titled “The Cost of Obedience.”

I was fine with obedience costing me, personally, but when I got to the subsection titled “Cost to my Family for me to do God’s Will,” it stopped me cold.  This was 1997, and I was a housewife and stay-at-home mom.  My family was more important to me than anything else on earth.  How could I ask my family to suffer and sacrifice for my answer to God’s call on my life?  Of course, at the time, I didn’t know what God’s call on my life was.  And if I hadn’t counted the cost—including the cost to my family—I might never have known.  God might have deemed me unsuitable for service if I had chosen my family over serving Him.

Baby Steps

God took me along in baby steps.  I didn’t jump into missionary service right then.  Later in the book, it asks the question: What work is God inviting you to join Him in?  When I prayed about that question, I remembered that I had been asked by another mother to help put together a children’s church program.  The church had been through a very bitter split just before I moved there, and the children’s program was a casualty.  So Sunday mornings consisted of great music, great teaching and preaching, but absolutely nothing for the children.  While the adults enjoyed the sermon, the children all around me colored pictures, ate candy, and went out to the bathroom with a frequency that far exceeded the needs of even the tiniest bladder.  So I called this woman and we met to pray and plan for putting together a children’s church program.  We had so much fun, both with each other and with our own children, that really the hardest part of all had been making that initial phone call.  That phone call had taken courage.

One day as I was showering I had an idea for a children’s program.  I was living in New England at the time, and there the kids had a week off from school, usually in February, and it was called Winter Break.  Many times, winter break put a strain on working parents, who then had to scramble to find someone to watch the kids while they work.  If they didn’t find someone, they simply had to take time off work for that week.  My idea was a one day Winter Carnival at which the kids could play games, win prizes, and learn about Jesus in a fun atmosphere.  My immediate reaction was “What a fantastic idea!” and on the heels of that thought was resistance because it was going to be a huge task to put it together in just a month’s time.

Having recently been through Experiencing God, I knew that an idea that great for sharing the Gospel together with my feeling of resistance meant that this was really God’s idea.  So I called the pastor and told him the idea.  He loved it, and told the elders about the idea.  They also loved it.  Before I knew it, people were calling and volunteering time, volunteering resources, and volunteering to help.  In the end, I had only a small part to do in planning, most of the set up, implementation, and clean up was done by others.  I had so many volunteers and so many resources that in the end, I couldn’t take any credit for any of it.  The biggest thing I did was call the pastor with the idea that God had given me.  And all that the phone call took was courage.

I knew at the time that children’s church was a temporary call, but I had no idea that God had a much bigger call on my life.  Two years after Experiencing God, and having Him change my life through service in children’s church, I got the big call.  But even the big call happened in small steps for me.  That story is too long to place here, but it is recounted in detail in my book, Laughing in My Dreams.

The point is that as I showed myself to be faithful in smaller things, God gave me bigger things.  The biggest obstacle to overcome was my own resistance.  That’s not to say that there wasn’t resistance and obstacles from other quarters.  There was.  But once I made my mind up, it was easy to overcome those things.

When I moved back to Italy as a missionary, I had a strong call of God upon my life, and my own determination to follow that call.  People on both continents told me that I am a very brave woman to have moved to Italy alone.  At first I thought that they just didn’t know how scared I am at times.  But then I realized that courage is not the absence of fear.  Courage is going ahead despite the fear.  And you know what I learned?  Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  What I learned in facing down fear is that fear flees when faced with determined action.

As many of my readers know, the End Times is on my mind a lot lately.  In reading Revelation 21:8 again, I realized that there will be a lot of people who take the Mark of the Beast, knowing that the Bible says not to.  In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Antichrist made that mark the number 666, just to snub his nose at God.  I have heard that several non-believers are reluctant to take a microchip into their hand because they recognize that it sounds like what Christians say will happen.  Those people who take the Mark knowing that they shouldn’t, will do so because they don’t want to be beheaded.  They are cowards.  They will end up in the Lake of Fire because they chose temporal comfort over eternal security.  And really, the only reason why they would do that is because they just don’t love God.

Don’t be cowardly!  Stand up for your beliefs.  We will overcome by the Blood of the Lamb and by the Word of our Testimony.  And never forget: God is good!  He will give you the strength and the joy to go through whatever you must go through.  Yes, joy!  The joy of the Lord is your strength.

Help! I’m Stewing in a Bureaucratic Caldron!

I spent my summer vacation this year much like I did last year:  hosting missionaries in Bob and Jill’s beach house that I was watching for them while they took their kids back home to the UK.  While others were baking their bodies in the sun all day, I finished my book, which is what I did last summer, too.  At about six in the evening, when the sun was lower on the horizon, I would put on my swimsuit and go float in the sea for a while.  Thus, the days passed in creative effort and relaxed play.  I could never have imagined that ministry would be such a pleasure!

Then I returned to the US to help my mom move to another state.  The move went very well, and as problem-free as any move can be.  Moving is always an exhausting chore—and if you don’t know that, then you’re one of the fortunate few that has probably never moved house at all!

Last spring I sold my house in Texas.  I figured that since I live in Italy most of the time, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep a house there.  When I sold the house, I told Mom: “Wherever you are is my house.”  She was delighted, and actually started looking for a place to live close to my brother.

My brother had moved into my house when his burnt down in a Texas wildfire.  All the people and pets were saved, but they lost virtually all of their possessions.  After my nephew graduated from high school, my brother moved to another state—one with a more hospitable climate—one where wildfires don’t happen.  Their new home happens to be only about four hours away from my sons and my baby grandchild.

Mom found a retirement center just half an hour from my brother’s new home.  They were running a special that she could have a second person live with her for free, but that person had to be at least 55 years old.  Since I’m 56, Mom got a two bedroom unit, and prepared to move.

So, my new legal residence in the US is in a seniors apartment with my mom.  I have to admit, it was weird at first, but most of the people there are so nice, so kind, so friendly that they have actually taught me a valuable lesson.  They have taught me to stop seeing people by age or infirmity, and instead to see them by their character.  Notice that I said that most of the people are nice, kind, and friendly.  Seeing people by their character also means that my discernment has been sharpened, so that those people who have spent their lives chasing money or seeking esthetic beauty (instead of inner beauty) reveal themselves as the small, shriveled souls that they are.  At the same time, those who have spent their lives cultivating a good character reveal a beauty that age or infirmity cannot diminish.  The discovery of this marvelous truth was like finding a gold nugget in the trash, and I believe that it has actually beautified my own soul.

Before booking my flight home to help Mom move house, I prayed for guidance, and immediately I felt like three weeks was enough time to get the move done, and to get her settled-in.  In fact, three weeks was exactly right, not just for Mom, but was right for me, and the things I needed to accomplish in the US before returning to Italy.

One thing I needed to do, but also wanted to do, of course, was to see my sons and my grandbaby.  We had a really nice, though brief, visit.  My younger son asked for my help in getting a document from Italy that he needs in order to get financial aid for university.  He needs a background check from his last three places of residence.  He tried to ask for it online, but for one reason and another, was unable.  The difficulty of obtaining this document is only matched by the absurdity of its requirement.  He was a child when he lived in Italy, and moved back to the US two months before his eighteenth birthday, so even if he was some sort of child prodigy criminal mastermind, his records would be sealed.

Dealing with the Italian bureaucracy is unfortunately unavoidable if you live in Italy, so with eleven years of experience under my belt, I prepared the requesting documents and went to the Procura (the equivalent of the District Attorney) of Milan.

First Visit to the Procura

Monday – The office of the Procura was on a street I had never heard of.  I arrived just two minutes after nine in the morning.  It turns out that the office is actually inside the Courthouse, not just near it.  So I had to go through screening.  I always carry a camera with me because you never know when you will come across something interesting that you want to remember.  I was told that I cannot enter with a camera, but that there is a coffee bar across the street where they will hold it for me.  So I had to exit, get rid of the camera, and go through the screening process again.  Luckily there was not a line to get in.  By the time I got to the right door and took a number, my number was 50.  The sign showed that they were working on number four.  Twenty minutes later, they were still on number four, and an officer came out and announced that they were shorthanded, and that nobody need bother to wait past 10:30.  All the people there rushed her and began peppering her with questions.  I left.  It didn’t take a genius to see that they would never get to my number by 10:30.

Tuesday – The following morning I had an appointment at the Russian Consulate to apply for a tourist visa to visit Moscow in October.  I figured that was just as well, since all the people who hadn’t gotten into the Procura this morning would be there bright and early the next morning.

My appointment at the Russian Consulate wasn’t without its challenges, too.  I had requested the appointment online, and the address given was, of course, way over on the other side of town.  As always, I allowed plenty of time for searching for an unfamiliar street in a part of town I hardly know.  I studied the map before leaving the house, jotted directions for myself, and headed out.  It did take quite a bit of searching because what the map didn’t show is that the street changes names a few times en route.  I stopped a man and asked directions.  He pulled a GPS out of his briefcase, put in the address, and showed me how to find the Consulate.  I have never known an Italian to be so helpful to a stranger.  Perhaps he was just not typical or perhaps he was an especially kind person who was put in my path by God or maybe he was an angel.  Who knows?

Despite having gone slightly off-course, I still made it about fifteen minutes early.  The big Russian guard that appeared at the door was rushed by people who waved papers at him, speaking in Russian.  I stood nearby and waited.  He brushed them aside when he saw that I had an official appointment paper.  Perhaps they hadn’t had appointments, who knows?  He studied my appointment paper, and conducted me inside, telling me in Italian which window to go to.  I went to that window, and the woman said, “We don’t do tourist visas here.”  She shoved my papers back at me and indicated a man sitting at a table with a sign that said Assicurazione (Insurance).  She had already turned her back and was talking to someone else before I could ask anything.  So I went to the insurance table and waited as he finished dealing with a family.  Confused, I showed him my papers.  He said, “You need to go to this address,” and he wrote an address on a sticky note with the name “Italconcepts” in bold print.  He assured me that it was close by, “Left out the door, right at the end of the block, then right at the roundabout.”

As I walked out, I was feeling somewhat discouraged, especially after the fiasco of that visit to the Procura.  But then my spirit rose up within me and said to me, “Look!  If God wants me to go to Russia, then no power on earth can stop me!”  And with each step I grew more and more confident that I would indeed get the visa to Russia.

I followed his directions, and found the roundabout about a kilometer away (about half a mile).  Then I found the address was another 100 meters or so, but my confidence had started to fade.  What remained was a sort of numbness, and that’s better than worry or fear, but falls shy of confidence’s exhilaration.

The agent was an Italian, and the first person that morning to smile at me.  Don’t underestimate the reassuring power of a smile.  He looked over my papers and said, “We don’t need this.  We don’t need that.”  Then he pointed to my invitation and said, “We can’t use this.”  He explained that because it was a photograph of an invitation, they would not accept it.  He interrupted himself to ask the receptionist a question.  Her name was Olga.  When he turned back to me and saw the disappointment on my face, he quickly added, “But we don’t need this invitation because we will invite you.”  I was confused, but I figured that Italconcepts must be some kind of facilitating agency that works with the Russian Consulate.

And Facilitate he did.  He explained that the online form for inviting Americans is four times longer than that for citizens of other countries, so he filled it out for me, asking me the pertinent questions.  When he got to the question “Organization,” I said that I wasn’t with an organization.  I told him that because as far as the Italian government is concerned, I am living here as a retired housewife, which I am.  There was and is no reason to complicate things by bringing the ministry to their attention, since I earn no money in Italy.  He said, “Come on, aren’t you with an organization of some kind?  A church, perhaps?”  I said, “Well, I do have a church here, and I told him the name of my Italian home church, which is Ministero Sabaoth.  I was about to spell it for him because Italians don’t pronounce the H, but to my astonishment, he spelled it perfectly.  Then he smiled at my shock and said, “I’m a Christian, too.  I know your church and your wonderful female pastor.”

So I’ve been granted a visa to Russia, and as I was about to leave it started to rain buckets.  He looked out the window and said, “Did you bring an umbrella?”  I hadn’t, so he loaned me his umbrella—a nice big one!  As I was walking to the bus stop, God said, “See?  I have people in places you know nothing about.”

Second Visit to the Procura

Wednesday – This time I left the camera at home and made sure to get to the Procura about eight-thirty—half an hour before it opens.  My number from the ticket machine was fifteen.  About an hour after opening my number came up.  The woman at the window looked at my documents, shoved them back at me and in a very harsh tone said, “You need a proxy.”  And like the woman at the visa window in the Russian Consulate, she turned her back and started talking to someone else.

If this had been in English, it would not have been such a problem, but even after living in Italy for almost twelve years, it unnerves me to be spoken to in such a hostile manner in Italian.  I’ve never been able to respond verbally—at least not in Italian.  In fact, the last time it happened, I broke down and cried on the spot—which had no effect whatsoever upon the person who had evoked the tears.  Mute, I gathered my papers and left the Procura feeling like a failure.  That feeling evolved into anger as I returned home.

With nothing else to do, but get back to paperwork at the house, I turned on my computer and opened my e-mail.  I subscribe to a prophecy newsletter, and it’s remarkable how many times it speaks precisely to me and to my situation.  Here’s what Wednesday’s prophecy said:

When your focus is narrowed so that you obsess over things that are not going your way or working the way you desire, you lose perspective and vision.  Refuse to concentrate on your worries and woes and do not allow you heart to be hardened to the point of being ungrateful.  You can choose to maintain a positive outlook, which will improve your disposition and mental health, says the Lord.  Do not despair.

This is not the first time that God has reminded me of the importance of remembering to be grateful.  So, with my attitude properly adjusted, I went on with my work, catching up on my records-keeping and planning for travel in November.

I wrote to my son, telling him what the woman at the Procura had said, and pleading with him to try to find another way.  He wrote back that one of the documents he had given me was a Proxy, authorizing me to ask for a background check.  I looked the papers over carefully, and he was right.

Third Visit to the Procura

Thursday – This time I went about an hour before the Procura opened.  I got ticket number one from the machine, and waited for the office to open.  As I waited, I thought about the Proxy, and decided not to let anyone deny me this time.  Then I began to pray for the hostile woman who had spoken so harshly to me yesterday.  As I prayed for her, God showed me that she is a very unhappy person who feels trapped in her job, but dares not quit.  Prayers full of compassion began to flow out of me for her.  By the time they opened, I was ready to deal with her from a heart full of love and concern for her as a human being.  The person at the window, however, was a man.  He took my papers and looked through them, while talking to another man behind the counter.  He looked very much in his element, multitasking, conversing, and reaching for things he needed without having to look.  I looked for the woman from yesterday, and finally saw her at a desk on the far side of the office, immersed in her paperwork.  That’s when I remembered Monday’s announcement that they were shorthanded, and realized that she must have been filling in at the counter for someone who was out sick.  As I considered that, I realized that she must have used hostility as a way to cover up for not really knowing how to do the work she had been asked to do.  After all, no one likes to be revealed as incompetent—even at a job they are only filling in on.  I wondered how many people before me had confronted her and had made her feel bad about herself before I showed up at her window.

Meanwhile, the man at the window busily tapped at his computer, stapled documents, stamped them, and chatted merrily with his coworkers.  With a final flourish he hit the Enter key and the printer whirred to life and spit out the two documents I had come for.  He stamped them, signed them and gave them to me.  I said, “That’s it?  I don’t need to come back for them?”  He said, “No, you’re done!”  And he turned back to his work, filing my documents in his Out box.

As I returned home with the documents in hand, it occurred to me that perhaps God had a larger purpose in having me go through the drama with the woman on Wednesday—a purpose for me (solidifying the lesson of remaining always grateful) and a purpose for her (in my prayers for her).  Then I realized that even going through the bureaucratic mess that Italian residency requires isn’t really such a bad thing.  God is able to redeem even this frustrating, time-eating, often futile activity.

I’ve said it many, many times before: God is good!