Leaving Kalisz

How in the world did a week go by so quickly?  It seems like we had just arrived, and then it was suddenly the last day of the feast.  The last worship session was marked as Poland, but involved each country’s worship group.  Throughout the week, our musical men (Giuseppe, Roberto, and Daniele) were asked to support other groups: Czech Republic, Germany, Russia, and England.  And they did.  Of all the people at the Feast of Tabernacles, the only ones who worked harder than our three guys were our hosts, who cooked, cleaned, set up the sound, and helped in a thousand different ways throughout the week, and at all hours.

During the last session, they were asked to help Czech Republic and Germany, and then Poland took the platform again.  I went to speak to the musical organizer because Italy hadn’t gotten an opportunity to do a last song.  He said, “Yes, but they got the chance to play.”  I said, “But only supporting, not as Italy.”  He told me it was too late.  I went back to where our group was sitting, I was too sad to even give them the bad news, only Felicity, who gave me a hug.  About a minute later, the musical organizer came up behind me and said, “OK, you have the chance to play one song.”  So we went onto the platform, to the astonishment of the Polish performers, who thought it was theirs for the rest of the hour.  They graciously stepped down and we did one last song.  After that we all took Communion together as the Polish team performed a quiet worship song.  Then we all sang together in joyful worship.

We had one last dinner together, and said our goodbyes.  It was so hard to say goodbye to everyone, hard to believe that the week was done.  We had a harrowing two-hour ride to the airport the next morning, at high speed on narrow two-lane roads most of the way, with big trucks, rain, and passing two or three cars at a time.  Each of us had a unique reaction to the drive:  Felicity was in the front seat, enjoying the speed.  I was in the back seat, thankful to know where I’m going if this is my time.  Bethany was next to me, hanging on for dear life, unwilling to glance toward the windshield, and praying in tongues.

The thing that has remained with me has been the very tangible presence of God.  This morning, having returned to Italy, I woke up at about 4 AM, and prayed for about three hours.  Yes, there is something so addictive (in a good way!) about the presence of God.  I love being in His presence so much that I just don’t want to leave.  So with God’s help I want to continue a practice of praying even more each day—three, four, or more hours.  God is good!

Serendipity—Another Word for Coincidence

Dictionary.com defines serendipity as having an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident; good fortune or luck.  http://dictionary.reference.com/.  If you know God, then you know that He is in control, and there are no accidental desirable discoveries nor luck.

I started to write the first part of this post between flights back in August when I returned to Texas to help Mom move to another state.  Moving is a very busy, exhausting activity, so I had never finished writing it.  The second part happened yesterday afternoon, and the third part happened this morning, which served as the catalyst to finish writing.

My Brazilian Buddies

Greetings from Dallas!

Today is a travel day, so I’m writing this between flights.  I came back to the US to help my mom move.  When I checked in at Milan Malpensa Airport three hours ahead, like they say to do, of course there was no one to check in with.  I don’t know why I keep showing up three hours early for these early morning flights, but having missed a flight because of a very crowded airport check in line, I want to avoid missing another flight.  The only other people there were a Brazilian father and daughter.  They were also flying across the Atlantic today.  We talked, and became friends, trapped together as we were, waiting for a ticketing agent to show up.

A ticket agent did eventually show up and check us into our flight.  We were flying to Frankfurt first, and then I would fly to Dallas.  When I was checked in, and passed through security, I found my gate at the far end of the terminal.  But we had stood there waiting for the ticket agent for such a long time (over an hour) that I felt like I needed to walk the kinks out.  And since I wanted to buy a bottle of water and a last cappuccino before leaving Italy, I walked past our gate area in search of an open coffee shop.  I heard someone running up behind me, with urgency in his voice saying, “Signora!  Signora!”  I turned around and it was the Brazilian father.  He told me, “The gate is back this way.”  I thanked him, explaining about the need for a walk and a cappuccino.

Having satisfied both needs, I returned to the gate and sat in the open seat next to the father and daughter.  While waiting for boarding I became very drowsy.  Father and daughter got to their feet and headed for the line as soon as boarding started.  I waited, in no hurry to be confined to an airline seat any longer than absolutely necessary.  So they were among the first to board, while I was one of the very last.

On the plane I found my seat, stowed my backpack, buckled up, and promptly fell into a deep sleep.  Those who know me know of my ability to fall asleep quickly and deeply sitting up in a car or on a plane.  I believe that this is a gift from God for a missionary who travels as much as I do for ministry.

As we were about to land I woke up and reached for the bottle of water that I had brought.  In my peripheral vision I saw a boldly striped blue shirt on the person sitting next to me—it was the Brazilian father with his daughter next to him in the window seat.  “It’s you!”  I exclaimed, and we laughed about how I had been so sleepy that I hadn’t even looked to see who was sitting next to me.  I told them that it had been very pleasant traveling with them, even if I hadn’t known it was them.  And as we parted, I wished them a buon viaggio (good travels).  And I marveled at how funny life is sometimes.

Going to Church

Yesterday was my favorite day of the week: Sunday.  I love Sunday because I love going to church.  I love going to church so much that I go to my own church in the morning, and another in the afternoon.  I go to two churches in the US, too.  The reason I love going to church is not the music (though the music is excellent) or the preaching (which is also excellent) or even the fellowship (which is wonderful).  The reason I love going to church is because I always go expecting to meet God—and I’m never disappointed!  When you expect to meet God, He always shows up.

I go and sit as close to the front as I’m allowed (some churches reserve the very front row for leaders and/or the worship team).  I sit down front so that I won’t be distracted.  This is especially important if the service is in Italian, which it is at my home church here in Milan.  From that place down front I find freedom to worship God with complete abandon.  In the past years when I sat back toward the middle, I found that I became self-conscious because those around me didn’t raise their hands or dance in worship.  Down front, where I can’t see what others are or are not doing, I just worship God from my heart and my spirit, completely uninhibited.  It is possible that there are people behind me watching me and wondering what kind of an exhibitionist-lunatic I am.  But since I can’t see them, and since I don’t know what they’re thinking, it doesn’t concern me in the least.  I would rather be David than Michal, and being down front allows me the freedom to dance like David (2 Samuel 6:16-23).

After church I went home with the intention to rest and then go to the afternoon service of the sweet little church in Monza.  But I rested a little too well and fell asleep.  When I woke up, it was clear that I would be late getting to church, even if each train was right there, waiting to take me.  I considered going to the church up the road, instead.  But when I prayed about it, I felt like God wanted me to go catch the train to Monza.

So I walked to the train station, and once inside, I was coming off the stairs and onto the platform when a young man said, “Do you speak English?”  I said yes, and he asked if the train would stop at the Porta Garibaldi train station—the same train station that I needed to take to get to Monza.  I explained that all the trains on the Passante line stop at all the stations in the city.  Relieved, he asked me if I was on vacation, and I told him that I’m a missionary here.  His smile got wider, and he said, “Well, what do you know!  I’m on my way to church.”  He explained that he just arrived from Australia as a student, and that his mother had found him an English-speaking church on the internet.  It was one I had heard of, but it had closed down some years earlier, as far as I knew.

Now it was my turn to smile more broadly, I said, “Hey!  If it’s OK with you, I’ll go with you.”  He was very happy to have my company, so we went together, following the directions sent to him via e-mail.

It turns out that the English-speaking church has a mostly young congregation composed of students, like my new Aussie friend.  The music was great and the preaching was solid.  I love young churches!  This was truly a gift from God—and all because I was late for church!  God is good!

Coming to Church

But that’s not the whole story of so-called serendipity.  The pastor of my home church in Milan made an announcement yesterday as the service was ending, saying that the last Sunday of the month would be evangelism Sunday, and that we should each bring someone to church with us.  I prayed about who I should invite, and Barbara immediately came to mind.

I have known Barbara for most of my eleven years in Milan.  And I’ve often wondered if she might be one of the reasons why God keeps me in this neighborhood, where I’m currently occupying my third apartment.

This morning I had to go to the gas company to set an appointment for them to turn on the gas.  On the way home I stopped by the street market to buy a few things.  I love walking through the street markets, but today it was drizzling.  Rainy days at the street market can be miserable, but drizzle isn’t so bad.  Suddenly, there was Barbara.  I’ve had it happen before that I’ll be thinking of her and she suddenly is there.  Between her work, my travel, and my move, I hadn’t seen her for over a year.  We had a joyous reunion right there in the market, and I invited her to come to church.  I had invited her before, but something always interfered and stopped her from coming.  She assured me of her interest, but said that she doesn’t know if she will have to work.  So I told her that I will call her on Saturday.

Barbara has been interested and asking questions for years now, and this time I believe that she will come to church and meet her Savior.  Serendipity?  No way!  This is the hand of God, and God is good!

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!