Friday, April 11, 2014

There and Back Again - Part 3: Churches



CHURCHES

As I look back at my pictures, when it comes to churches, I am a little disappointed. From the outside, or on the inside, the pictures don't do them justice; not to the architecture, the splendor, the age, the size, the pillars, the stain glass, the carvings, not to anything. I have only been to England, Scotland, and now France in Europe, but I'm convinced that old churches and cathedrals are one of the most unique and powerful things to see. Even for people who have never actually worshiped in a church context authentically, don't know Jesus, or would not consider going inside a church except as a tourist. Just like pictures don't do justice to the buildings themselves, the buildings don't do justice to God's glory and splendor, yet I believe that was their intention. And I think even unchurched people see and understand that, and appreciate it.




Is God pleased at the grandeur of these structures? Have locals been inoculated by the size and the number of them in cities like Paris? Does authentic worship happen in these places? Is the biblical gospel preached from these pulpits? All questions that will continue to bounce around in my mind.

The three pictures directly above are all of the Notre Dame, which is impressive. We walked around the outside of this monstrous church (the gargoyles justify my use of "monstrous" in reference to a church) on our first morning, and then walked inside on our second morning when it was less crowded. Our hotel location was ideal and allowed for this. It occurs to me now, after seeing this famous Gothic cathedral, that it is strange that old and beautiful churches in Europe have become major tourist attractions. Is that not ironic? What are the points of interest? Well, with the Notre Dame, you've got the architecture, which is amazing. I do not appreciate architecture as I should, but it is clear that the intricacies and scope of this structure is unmatched. Then you've got the history: originally completed in 1345; Henry VI crowned there in 1431; Mary Queen of Scots married 1558; coronation of Napoleon in 1804; plundered during the French Revolution; restored in the 19th century; etc. But, I wonder, what about gospel history? How many people were saved by the blood of Jesus in this building?



What did the men who stood behind these pulpits say? Were they clear that Jesus Christ himself said that he is the only way to the Father? Did they describe the desperation portrayed in the man in the painting in the picture above? How did the proclamation of the gospel coincide with these historic events? Did Napoleon hear the gospel? Did he believe?


I am looking at church buildings differently after this trip, especially older ones, in cities and in small towns. I appreciate them more. I would like to contribute to others seeing then differently, more positively, also. Nowadays, I think, when someone sees a church building, or even several church buildings within a close proximity, they see the abuses of the church; the hypocrisy, the legalism, the rituals. Or, they see the building as an indicator of institutionalism, dry or dead orthodoxy, or exclusion, all of which were never meant to be what the community of God was bound to.

When I see a church building, especially an old church in the heart of a city, or a smaller church in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, I see what I think was always meant to be seen, namely, a beacon of light for the surrounding community; a place where the gospel is spoken and lived and where hope is offered to those who need it most (which is all of us); a safe place where lives are shared without judgment, but also an uncomfortable place where vulnerability is necessary for change, which is necessary for joy. Even in a church building that consists of a congregation that is not growing, perhaps a pastor or ministry that does not preach the gospel or believe completely in the Bible, I see these things.

When I see a church, when I see a steeple, peering out between buildings as is the case so often in Paris (see picture above), I see hope. I see light in a dark world. I can’t change every church that is dying, unbiblical, or going astray from what God intends for them. I know that many of the churches I see in Europe and small town America fall into one of these categories. But what I can do, maybe, is celebrate the church in such a way that the very presence of a building (but not only a building of course!) can be seen as hope and light in a community and a world that needs exactly that. What if I could tell a person who is hurting that the existence of that old church down the street (the very existence!), even though the people in that church may not understand the Bible or the gospel very well, is evidence that God is gracious, and that He cares about our pain, He shared in it, and He offers hope because He came down to us and lived the life we should have lived, died the death we deserved the die, and rose from the dead conquering the ultimate root of our pain, forever! And He commissioned his people to bring that hope to the world, community by community, local church by local church, steeple by steeple. The presence of a church building is proof of the gospel. Do you see churches that way?



Backing up a little in the timeline of our trip, the above pictures are of the famous Westminster Abbey. The amount of history in this place is staggering. I mean literally you should not walk straight. The physical remains of Edward Longshanks, Henry VII, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, not to mention poets and authors from Charles Dickens to Charles Darwin. William the Conqueror was crowned here in 1066. Spiritually, this place was a central location in the transition from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism during the Reformation, creating a split between the Church of England and the authority of Rome. Queen Elizabeth II coronation. Princess Diana funeral. The "Royal Wedding" of 2011. Truly, this place is amazing. "The tombs and monuments speak both of human dignity and achievement and of the Christian confidence in life after death." And, it is a living church. Is this same confidence clear in regular worship there? Is it proclaimed where this confidence comes from? 


Moving to Guildford and surrounding areas, the above picture is of St. James Church in Shere, England. Yes, that graveyard is the graveyard that Cameron Diaz awoke in her cab and said, "This can't be it", in the movie The Holiday. I hesitate using that reference to relate, but I imagine it worked for many. Know that the history in this church is much more relevant than the setting of a movie.


I'm not sure if you can see this picture very clearly, but it is posted in the back of the church and it has an engraving of the name of every Rector at the church since 1270. The church is said to go back earlier than that. A running list. Did you catch that? 1270. One congregation, 744 years, 42 pastors. That is amazing. Compare it to the church you go to, or a church you have gone to. Imagine, the impact that God has had through this one local body of believers. Same town, dozens of generations, all of which born into sin and desperate for the Savior.

Now, some of the history of this church is as concerning as it is fascinating. Have you ever heard of the concept of an anchorite in medieval times? I will let you read these letters, and perhaps you can make as much sense of it as me:



You could also just go to the internet (the one with email) and, using the Google machine, search "anchoress of Shere". But this way you know I was there. Also of note in this church is a chest from the 13th century that is thought to have been for storage of alms to aide poor Crusaders. This chest was just sitting in the front of the church. I have seen less valuable and more guarded furniture at an antique store. This thing was just in the corner with a discarded copy of last week's bulletin on top of it. Welcome to England. I hope I am getting you into history if you're not already. Most chests you see in a church, or an antique store, or maybe your house, if you're lucky are from your grandmother's house and maybe were made in the 1800s, and stored clothing garments, jewelry, or old parchments or something. And if it has family history it is probably in the center of a room, or well protected in a safe place. This chest at this church was from 800 years ago, was used for aid for one of the most significant, yet shameful, periods in the history of Christianity, and it was just in the back of the church without even a marking.


I want to worship at this church someday. It could be interesting, but still, I want to. What blows my mind is that this church is considered old and drenched in history beyond comprehension to us as Americans. We just don't have anything like it. But to God? A day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is but a day.



We spent our second day in Paris walking around St. Germain and the Latin Quarter. My wife asked me the other night which day in Paris was my favorite. I hesitated to say our second day only because it was raining. Now, dry and warm inside my house in Fishers writing this, with absolutely no memory of the rain, I say Tuesday without any hesitation. Much of the reason for that I have covered about in the Culture and Cuisine sections; it was on this day we strolled around without much of an agenda, and fell into markets, cafes, bookstores, chocolate shops, boutiques, a classic French bistro on the Rue de Mouffetard for lunch, and the oldest restaurant in Paris for dinner. It really was perfect. But, on top of that, walking around these classic Parisian neighborhoods, we would approach (and walk by if we weren't careful) amazing old churches. We'd turn a corner, and boom, there was St. Sulpice (second picture above). I was amazed by this church and the square in front of it. What of the history of this church? How has God moved here?

And then there was St. Germain des Pres, the oldest church in Paris (first picture above). It was outside here we stopped at a famous café and Katie blessed that aspiring artist. We went inside this church, and I wish I could capture for you the beautiful opera singing practice that accompanied us as we walked around the back of the altar. But I can't. You'll have to go and hope they are practicing again when you go inside.


Finally, there was the Sacre-Coeur. The best for last. For us, the most memorable part of the experience was the approach. I wonder how many Parisians, or tourists, take the same approach. We probably wouldn't recommend our route. Still, perhaps it was the approach meant to be taken to see the church as it is. Similar to our road to salvation, the road to this amazing church at the Northern tip of Paris, and atop of the city, is not meant to be traveled without some toil, even danger. To put it in perspective, check out this map:


Find the Gare Du Nord (right side of the map). Now find the Sacre-Coeur (top left). It is clear there are roads between them, yes? How hard could it be? Well, our journey began at the Gare Du Nord late afternoon our last night (on a mission that was sadly unsuccessful). Knowing how close it appeared to be, I said for sure we were going to see this church. I had read a little about it (not enough it would turn out), and we had seen it at night atop the Arc de Triomphe two nights before and were blown away by how it seemed to tower over the city.

I am going to be honest with you: sometimes I don't process the obvious. In this case, the fact that it "towered over the city" did not register, and so it did not occur to me that it would not be at the same altitude as where we were coming from, namely, the streets of Paris. Also, these "streets of Paris" were a tad different than those of our friendly Latin Quarter. That is to say, not to be judgmental, but the people around these parts seemed up to no good. We decided in route we would find a dinner spot close to "home" on this our last night (and we did, on the same street as our hotel, and it was fabulous #FrenchOnionSoup). But I digress.

I held my wife tight, and we walked via the map in the general direction of the Sacre-Coeur. Gradually, it became apparent that we were climbing. Shortness of breath, aching legs, etc. Then, the streets in real life did not seem to match the streets on the map. But I was trusting my nose (which normally is terrible at direction, not to mention regular smelling). Then, the area appeared residential. Then, well, here is a picture looking down after climbing what was definitely a residential street. At the time of taking this picture, we had no idea whether any road connected further up the hill, or if it did, whether it would take us to the church (which we had at least seen through the buildings once, before losing it again).


Long story short, we found that it wasn't a dead end. We winded around a little more, passed a few locals taking out their trash, and then this:


Yes, still some stairs to climb, and, actually this was the back of the church, which at first appeared closed off and empty, but...we had made it. We walked around to the front of the church and saw the amazing building, the people, and the city. It was breathtaking.




Part of me wants to know the history of this church and in this church before telling our story of visiting this church. I know that Pope John Paul II had visited. But another part of me predicts that I will be a little disappointed. So, instead, in conclusion to this recap on a fabulous trip, I want to reflect briefly on our journey to this church, and the beauty upon our arrival, as a synopsis of the reward and purpose of travel. I could let my imagination run wild here and stretch out a comparison beyond what would make sense. Maybe I should later. But for now, I think our approach to this church represented well what I believe to be a healthy approach to travel.

It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t entirely planned, and it wasn’t completely safe, but it was worth it. When I say it was “worth it”, what do I mean? Worth the view? Worth the pictures? Worth the memory, or the experience? Yes to all of these things. But I mean also something less about us I think. 

We couldn't stay at this breathtaking place forever, just like we couldn't stay in Paris, or Guildford, or London forever. It would have even been nice to stay just a bit longer. It will be great to go again, God willing. But the point was not to stay. The point was to go, and to come back, and for something to happen in the process. What happened?

We had fun, yes. We enjoyed temporary pleasures, like food and drink. We saw amazing sights with our eyes that are now in our memories. We learned a lot, about history, culture, geography, language, and people. We celebrated an anniversary and grew closer together in our marriage. Anything else? Are we closer to Jesus? What would that look like?

As I reflect on that view beyond the Sacre-Coeur, looking over all of Paris, and the journey to get there, I am convinced that the answer to that last question is absolutely yes. We were, and we are now still, closer to Jesus. The same thing applies to the entire trip. But what does that mean?

God is not the God of the Jews only, Paul says. God is not the God of the Christians only, I would add. He is the one living God of the universe. Jesus Christ is the only name under heaven by which anyone can be saved, but God is God over and among those who have not yet believed also. God is the God over the aspiring artist. God is God over that bookstore owner. God is God over the Scottish men we talked to briefly at The Red Lion pub in England, who were not the first or the last to warn us of pickpockets in Paris (none of whom we encountered). Etc.

The secular Englishman and Parisian, perhaps no longer amazed by or appreciative of the wonders of their culture and history, desensitized to the taste and uniqueness of their food, espresso, tea, or wine, and inoculated to the reality of God or the concept of church community because of the ubiquity of breathtaking buildings and architecture all around them - God is God of them also. And in His sovereignty, He allowed us to rub shoulders with some of them. I know more the heart of my God by knowing more of the diversity of the people He is God over, some of whom by His grace are His children, whether they know it yet or not. I hope that some people in the places we visited can say, now or in the future, that they know God a little more also because of us and our brief presence among them.

We did not share the gospel with our words, and we should have. But if God is the God over the Englishman in the pub, or the Parisian in the café, or even the Asian tourist in the Notre Dame or the Louvre, all of whom communicate very differently than us, is he not also the God over our neighbor? Or our co-worker? Or our high-school friend? There are still barriers with communicating the gospel with these people in our lives, but language (or even accent) is not one of them. Jesus draws us to Himself by showing us that His grace in the gospel comes to us on its way to someone else, and areas of common ground to improve communication with people are many. Sometimes it takes a trip across the world to be reminded of that.
  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

There and Back Again - Part 2: Cuisine



CUISINE

This will mostly be a foodie report. We ate well in England and France. I will take this opportunity to direct you to the blog of my wife, who has an amazing heart and an amazing gift for celebrating food and nutrition to the glory of the God; to be satisfied in food by being more satisfied in God. What I will do here is share some pictures and mention some highlights. Like I said, we ate well.


This is called a Full English Breakfast. Eggs, sausage, ham, tomato, mushroom, and black pudding. Yes, black pudding. No, not like dark chocolate pudding. Black like blood sausage pudding, presumably with a high proportion of oatmeal. Um, its delicious.


Can I say, anyone that is underwhelmed with English food is crazy. While in Guildford, our friends took us to an authentic English Pub, and we did what you should absolutely do: order Fish & Chips and some type of Meat Pie (I got Steak and Ale - first picture above). Washed it down with some T.E.A. - no, not tea like afternoon tea, tea like Traditional English Ale. It was a perfect dining experience.


At this establishment: tikka misala. It so happens that the only place with better Indian food than India is London. We (Katie especially) have recently fallen in love with Indian food (she prefers Chicken Korma, and she is probably right), so our friends made a reservation for us at a classic Indian Restaurant in Covent Garden called Punjab. Fabulous.


One thing about cuisine is that it is not entirely about the food. You could say it is not primarily about the food, or that it is barely about the food. It is just as much about the experience. And the experience is always enhanced with friends. Above is a picture with our friends, Jake and Katlyn, at an Italian restaurant in Guildford, where they live. They were such gracious hosts. They had made reservations at an Italian restaurant and a Thai one, for us to choose. We had eaten Indian the night before, had already had all the staple English dishes, and it occurred to me: we love Italian (who doesn't), and aren't we closer to Italy than we've ever been (well, Katie has been to Italy, but still)? So we had Italian. It was wonderful.


On to Paris. My family goes to Ft. Lauderdale every year for vacation, and the first year my wife went with me we had a date night at a French restaurant called Le Cafe de Paris. Great food, terrible service - perfect experience. We loved it. It was there that my wife (and myself years earlier) was introduced to escargot, aka, snails with lots of olive oil. So, the first restaurant we went to in Paris we ordered escargot. Best ever. #Snails



My brother Matt, blogging and tweeting as @enthusiastofall (France Dining Recap), highly recommended a meal at the oldest restaurant in Paris, Le Procope, and specifically the Coq Au Vin which comes in a copper cauldron. I'm very glad he did. It was awesome. And the restaurant itself was a classic spot. Nooks and cranies everywhere. Did I mention the cauldron?


Call me generic, but I had to get French Onion Soup while in Paris. Because, as you know, Paris is in France, making food served there Fren...oh, you understand. I am not necessarily a fan of it normally, mostly because I avoid dairy where I can. But on our last night there, at a great little authentic French place on our street, I saw it on the menu and I went for it. It was so good I slurped the remainder of the broth from the bowl when I was finished.


Our second night in Paris was also our 2nd wedding anniversary, and the best dinner we had. Praise God for that! We found a place just beyond the Arc de Triomphe off Champs Elysees, called Le Hide. Japanese chef, but authentic French cuisine. Small like less than 10 tables. Amazing atmosphere, and delightful service. The best dish I had the whole trip was my first course at this place: Duck and Lentils. Oh man. The Lamb Shoulder main course was pretty good too, but oh those lentils.

In summary, the food was really good. French food might be my new favorite. All glory to God who gives us food to enjoy, and desires that we do so while experiencing ultimate satisfaction in Him! How cool to experience this in other cultures.

Monday, April 7, 2014

There and Back Again - Part 1: Culture



I totally stole this title from Bilbo Baggins. But it is perfect. What I want to communicate in these posts is the wonder of travel, and the nature of it, as a very healthy refocus on reality for the purpose of rejuvenation and expanding horizons, as opposed to an escape from reality for the purpose of mindless vegetation or a wild fling completely contrary to a realistic lifestyle. All of this in the context of a trip to London, Guildford, and Paris with my wife to visit friends and celebrate our 2nd wedding anniversary. I will summarize my thoughts, and our trip, in three categories: culture, cuisine, and churches. But first, some commentary on travel.

Why do we like to travel? What is the purpose? To see new things, have new experiences, relax, take a break from our busy lives, expose ourselves to new cultures and people, eat, drink, and perhaps to spread the gospel. All of these reasons are very good. But why do we look forward to it? Why do we make the planning of it so much more time than the trip itself? Sometimes I worry that the reason we look forward to a big trip so much, and the reason we spend so much effort planning it, is a dangerous reason. I know for me it is a reason that I need to guard against.

Recently, I was convicted by Philippians 4:8, where Paul says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Through this verse John Piper helped me see the importance of never turning my brain off. Never completely escaping from reality. He described it in the context of movies - do the movies we watch allow us to think on what is lovely, pure, and honorable? Or do they allow us to escape from these things? I am encouraged that I can watch a movie, even a movie very far from reality (Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, for example), without completely escaping from reality or ceasing to think on pure, honorable, lovely, excellent things. It just takes some discipline.

In the context of travel, my concern is that the reason we (I) look so forward to travel, plan so much for it, and miss it when we return and immediately look forward to the next trip, can be that we desire an escape from reality. We look forward to it not as a healthy refocus on reality, or enhancement on the definition of reality (expanding our horizons and enlarging our concept of reality), but as an escape from it - an opportunity to "turn our brain off" as we relax, explore, etc. This, I think, is the wrong reason to travel, and a dangerous approach to it. I hope my recap of a wonderful recent trip can gently challenge and also encourage you to look back at past trips this way, and look forward to future trips with this thought in mind.

I believe that heaven in part will be eternal travel - constant exploration, constant relaxation, completely free from sin. If that is true, than the purpose of travel would have to be growth in likeness to Christ and depth of worship, all by continuing to experience more and more of a greater reality (Jesus), as opposed to escaping from reality in any sense. Should we not consider the same purpose for travel now? What would that look like?

CULTURE

My wife and I are very similar in that we do not necessarily need an agenda when we travel. We like to experience culture, watch and interact with people, take it all in - instead of necessarily doing specific things or activities. In fact, one of the things I love most about my wife is her spontaneity. It brings out a side of myself that was mostly untapped before we met, and together as a couple our unplanned adventures and experiences are also our most precious memories. Traveling is a perfect time to prepare the space to let this type of spontaneity flourish. But there are extremes to avoid. It can be a time to squash it altogether if you have too strict of a schedule. On the other hand, no schedule at all can create the situation where spontaneity runs amok and you never end up doing or seeing anything. So you have to be careful, but we seem to balance this very well.

So going into this trip to London, Guildford, and Paris, we did some planning, but really hoped to take in the culture however we could - eating, drinking, shopping, people watching, walking, etc. I think we definitely succeeded, and both of us now miss both the culture of England and the culture of Paris, and wish we could recreate those different cultures back in our suburban American home of Fishers, Indiana. Alas, that is but a dream. But I think our brief immersion in both cultures expanded our horizons in a way that going forward will help us communicate with people better, enjoy simple pleasures better, appreciate history more, and see the world both much smaller and also much bigger than we did before. All of this I think is a healthy result of our travels.



One of our highlights in London was stopping in a classic English Pub, called The Red Lion, in the middle of a great walk through Green Park and St. James Park, and after a visit to Westminster Abbey. I should take this opportunity to thank Andrew Wilson, not only for joining Katie and I at The Wolseley for a great meal and conversation, but also for the counsel on a manageable and beautiful walk through London.

After the Abbey, the timing was perfect for an ale. We had English ales in an establishment that had existed in the form of a tavern at the same site since the 15th century, and had hosted the likes of Charles Dickens and Sir Winston Churchill in more recent years. You can't experience something like that in Indiana, or anywhere in the United States for that matter. And while the beer was awesome, the overall experience of going from Westminster Abbey seeing the burial place of Kings and Queens from the last several centuries (and also poets and authors including Charles Dickens as it happens), to a classic and historic pub that had existed for hundreds of years, was incredible. The combination of walking through beautiful parks, seeing historic sites, and then having an ale in a historic pub, brings you into the culture of London way more than any one of those three things by itself could. And so just on our first afternoon we felt fully part of English culture, and we loved it. Here is another picture of a historic pub that we didn't go in, but I love the picture because it captures the culture of the pub so well: on the corner, people outside, conversation, etc.


Americans should not be surprised that culture in other places is largely defined by food and drink. This is not a new concept. And when you think England, you shouldn't only think pubs and ale, you should also think tea.


Tea in England is not just tea, if you didn't know. Especially afternoon tea. Afternoon tea is tea, sandwiches, biscuits, chocolates, and more. And it is an experience. We stayed and experienced afternoon tea with our friends who live in Guildford for more than two hours. I would now say that you would be hard pressed to say you have experienced or even seen English culture if you have not had afternoon tea. I wonder, how much better can we identify with English people, how much deeper do we understand their backgrounds, their interests, their comfort zones, now that we have experienced something so natural in their culture? 



Culture in Paris is no where more centralized than in the cafe, in my opinion. And the cafe is most identified with coffee, wine, croissants, and charcuterie, with views of amazing sites, interesting streets, and moving people. That is what I think of at least. You might be thinking, wait, is he going to focus on cuisine in a different category? The answer is yes. Food is a huge part of culture, but it also deserves its own category.

We had some great experiences in cafes. If we go back, I hope for many more, and could even see myself spending more than half my time in cafes. One example: my wife generously treated an aspiring artist to a hot chocolate as she was sketching the St. Germain des Pres (the oldest church in Paris) outside in the cold and rain. Her thankfulness was worth the trip to Paris. Sidenote: do you ever think like that? Do you ever think in the context of eternity so extremely, and reason with the thought that blessing one person in even a small way is worth an entire trip to the other side of the world? I usually only think that way in hindsight, but still it is helpful for me in being attentive to those opportunities in the future. In this case, I am so thankful for my amazing wife who was attentive to this type of opportunity in the moment.


As anyone who knows me or knows this blog would predict, the culture of books, writing, and literature in Paris was one of my favorite parts. One of the most famous bookstores in the world, Shakespeare and Company, did not disappoint. There even was a pianist upstairs as we browsed the collection of books that Ernest Hemingway himself was among at one time. I think that the "pianist" was actually just a regular guy showing off for the store manager, but still, the experience was memorable. I love thinking that so much culture was captured, and in some cases even created, in this bookstore. I can assure you I did not turn off my brain during this experience.

At another bookstore not pictured, I encountered an elderly French man who seemed to have worked at this bookstore for 100 years. I'm not kidding. I was actually standing bewildered outside his door trying to figure out if he was open, when he noticed me, and went to great effort to come to the door (he was old, and there were a lot of books in his store - like, he could have tripped on them). When he opened the door, the first thing I said was, Parlez vous anglais? He looked confused and angry. And, he may have been deaf. So, he extended his ear to me, I repeated, his confusion increased. Eventually, he proceeded back to his desk in the back of the store, while he mumbled in French, and I guess I took that to mean I could look around. He managed some English at this point and said if he could help to let him know. I wish I spent more time at this store and with this man.

I asked if he had a Bible in French. Huh? Ear in my face, repeat, huh? Maybe he was just acting like he was deaf? Anyway, after falling over some unorganized stacks of dusty books (not literally, but almost), and dropping several books as he made his way around the store mumbling in French, he came back to me with a Bible I think he said was Italian. It was enormous, and probably 200 years old. I don't know why I didn't ask. Maybe I was scared of him. I looked around a little more, and he came back up to me after a couple minutes and apologized for being unprepared for my "visit' (not his words, exactly), but you see, he was closed. It would have been appropriate for him to call me an idiot. I probably broke a dozen rules of common courtesy. Heck, maybe he could make an argument that I forced my way in? In the end, he was very nice to me. I wonder how his store is doing? I wonder if he has read that Italian Bible? Or a French one maybe he had in the back but had forgotten about in the mess? I wonder if he has family? I wonder what his story is? I wish I spoke French in moments like these. 



Art is something that both Katie and I are not naturally drawn to. But, when I think of culture, even specifically when I think of the influence of culture, or the creating of culture, especially as it applies to Christians in culture, I think of artistic expression. And so when in Paris, you go to the Louvre. Its just what you do. You would be crazy not to. We went with a very general objective, with room to deviate, and actually it worked out great. We spent two hours very productively and I would recommend our exact approach with enthusiasm. Our general objective was to go straight to the Mona Lisa, and allow ourselves freedom to linger at whatever caught our eye on the way to it and on the way back.

Well, it just so happens that the Mona Lisa is small and way overrated. And crowded. But around the Mona Lisa, in the same wing of the museum as the Mona Lisa, and in the adjacent rooms, are some of the most amazing, intricate, and alive paintings I have ever seen. I say alive because you can just stare at them for several minutes and the amount of detail you see is fascinating, and you start to feel inside the painting. The size of the paintings I am speaking of also creates this experience of awe. The highlights for us were the Wedding Feast at Cana, the Raft of the Medusa, and the Coronation of Napoleon. The one I pictured above I actually don't recall the name, but I included it because Katie and I lingered around it and discussed it for awhile. Is that what the cherubim look like? What is the deal with the man / horse? Why are they trying to get out of the forest? Is something driving them out? Fascinating. Culture at its finest.

The second hour we spent in another wing of the museum looking at Greek sculptures and Egyptian artifacts. The draw to all this to me was the age; sculptures from 120 B.C., Egyptian relics and statues from 1300 B.C. Think about that. Most famous of what we saw, and well worth the hype, was the Venus de Milo and the Ramses II. You have to go to the Louvre when in Paris. I recommend heading straight towards the Mona Lisa, taking a brief look to say you did, and spending a great deal of time at the wall-sized paintings in the rooms surrounding. Then head to the Ancient Greek Sculptures and Egyptian rooms and think about the concept of eternity, where beautiful artistic expression like this will be created and admired forever in an environment where time is not even a category. If you have more than two hours you are willing to spend, you are more cultured than I and probably should be the one writing this post. Two hours for us was perfect.

After experiencing art in this way, I feel more imaginative, more aware of the imagination of others, more conversant about history and other cultures, and more in awe of the God-given creativity of man created in the image of God, and therefore more able to praise that God, who through Jesus Christ I know personally as my Lord and Savior. What a great result of travel!

Returning home, we have officially left these cultures, and we are back to our own. We can make afternoon tea and biscuits (which we have), we can visit art museums in our city (which we have), we can dine at French restaurants (which we have), but the culture is different. What did we leave with these cultures? What did they leave with us? Were any differences bridged? Was the love of Christ communicated through us? Were we changed as a result of our trip? I am thankful that the boldness and generosity of my wife gave some specific and practical answers to these very good questions. Below is the aspiring artist I mentioned before, with her hot chocolate.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

John Piper is Coming to My Church



Several years ago, say 2005, this may have been too much for me to handle. You could say I would have been excited. You could even say I would have been sinful in my excitement. That is, I would have been more excited by the presence of John Piper than the presence of Jesus through John Piper. As I have said before, I was in the middle of spiritual puberty. It was an awkward time. And my exposure to the teaching of John Piper at that time was significant.

Now, I can look back to those days with a small measure of maturity, and feel a great sense of gratitude to my Lord and Savior for the ministry and the person John Piper. I can look ahead with great humility and thankfulness that God would put me in a local church body, and grant that church body to be a place where he would use John Piper to speak his word with boldness and equip and encourage us to more passionately follow Jesus. God is very, very, very good.

Sometime in 2007, a little bit after those awkward times I mentioned, I remember that some people would smirk when I quoted John Piper in a small group or Bible study, and they would give me this look and seem to say, “Why does he always quote John Piper? Why is he always reading and listening to John Piper? Does he worship John Piper?”

To which I now respond: What if you went through your whole life, and upon standing face to face with King Jesus, the Creator and the Judge of the universe, you realized that no one had ever told you just how important this moment was, and just how much you would regret, even if having been saved by the skin of your teeth into eternal life, not living your life passionately for the glory of God, and instead for temporary, fleeting pleasures? Imagine if no one boldly and authoritatively had told you that illusions such as retirement, and money, and toys, and leisure, were all unbiblical and potentially devastating if not used for the glory of Jesus Christ. Imagine if you sought after all these things, not only because of evil desires to pursue your own pleasure, but also because no one had ever told you that you should ever consider fervently seeking after anything else.

Then imagine if someone came along and passionately pleaded with you, in a manner and style totally shocking to you, and with a boldness and authority totally convincing to you, that you should not waste your life but instead give it up for Christ and His Kingdom, and whatever that means for you; whether early death, or suffering, or the lack of luxurious years of retirement or a comfortable life; whatever that means for you, it will be better and more fulfilling and more satisfying and more eternal than standing on that day in front of King Jesus with regret. Wouldn't you pay attention to someone who talked like that? 

I would, and I have in John Piper.

John Piper himself is but a vessel. He is like a vapor, same as you and me, who will be gone before too long. But I thank God for him, because he has shown me a picture of Jesus and a passion for Jesus, and has given me such a desire to live for Jesus that without his example, perhaps I never would have seen such a picture, or never have had such a desire. And that would have been unfortunate for me on that day when I am to give an account to my Lord and Savior, not to mention for the people that could, perhaps, be influenced the same way now through me.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Quicksand of Conscience


"O Father in heaven, thou who probest the souls of men, open a little ray of light for me into the bottomless darkness of the human heart, in order that I may penetrate for an instant into its mysteries; send one swift beam for me into the depths, in order that I may see, as in a flash of lightning, the forces that wage war for the possession of a man's soul. For who can pierce, who can weigh, who can even grasp the dark things which lie, involved like demons in an abyss, in the coils of the mind of man? What were the powers which worked in the young man of Tarshish that he might carry out the work of the Evil One?"

These words, written by Sholem Asch, are in reference to Saul of Tarshish (Tarsus), who later became the Apostle Paul and author of most of the New Testament. Asch was a Jewish scholar / historian who wrote a fictional trilogy made up of the novels The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary. In The Apostle, Asch draws on his extensive knowledge of Jewish culture and rituals, and puts the character of Saul right in the middle of the early church and the rise of the "sect" of those who followed the "false Messiah". Interestingly, Asch portrays the conversion of Saul in dramatic fashion, and goes on to highlight the truth of Jesus, "Yeshua of Nazareth", as the true Messiah. In doing this, he offended Jewish sensibilities and led New York's leading Yiddish newspaper to drop him as a writer.

This Apostle that Asch portrayed so vividly, the man who arguably contributed more to the spread of Christianity, save Jesus Christ himself, than anyone else who has ever lived, is for us the most profound example of the wickedness of the human heart. How fitting, and amazing, that this same man would go on to write the words of Romans 1, stopping the mouths of all people who would attempt to justify their suppression of truth and resulting depravity, in front of a holy God. Paul knew this to be the true condition of the human heart, because it was the condition of his heart.

"Saul was shamed in all his depths by the action of this simple man, who had so disarmed him he had been unable to answer and had been driven to rage and bitterness. But who was this whom he had called 'the lord'? Who had he been who was able to implant such love in the hearts of the simple that they were ready to be thrust out of Israel for his sake? Who was the man who had spread such teaching among the broken of spirit that they could stand before the learned and disarm them with the sword of their faith? Who was he who had sent such a light into the dark pits of the poor? Who had given the strength of rocks to the shattered? Who was he whose fall had been interpreted as the supreme victory, whose weakness was seen as unconquerable strength, whose humiliation had been crowned with the glory of the Messiah? Who was he? Who?"

Asch imagines the agony and internal battle within Saul's soul in the days before his experience on the road to Damascus. He portrays Saul as deeply conflicted, replaying in his mind the love and the courage and the grace in the faces of those whom he had personally persecuted. But each time his confusion and pain lead him deeper into the abyss and sharpen his resolve to prove that this Yeshua is not the long-awaited Messiah but a demon. I wonder if this portrayal is accurate to the feelings of Paul before he was confronted with the risen Lord? I imagine it is. I imagine this internal battle, and the reaction of further suppression once light begins to be revealed, is remarkably close to the testimony of all people. We know God, we see him, and we suppress this truth. Then, he reveals himself more to us, through someone or something, and we see him more clearly, but still not to our liking, we suppress deeper. And deeper.

Is this not similar to the attitude of all those outside Christ, as the Spirit begins to move in their heart to shine the light of the glory of the grace of God in the face of Jesus Christ? Until he actually does shine this light, once and for all, revealing himself ultimately in all his glory, we are in the equivalent of a quicksand of conscience. Sinking into an ongoing suppression and destruction, only to be rescued by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we look at people around us in this way? Do we pray that the Spirit would move in their heart and convict them of sin, and then reveal Himself to them in so dramatic a way that they would see Jesus and believe? Do we see people, not as enjoying the pleasures of life, but as sinking into quicksand? And do we realize that they do not have the strength, or the wits, to help rescue themselves from this condition? Do we truly know that we don't either? Do we see people around us, not as simply drowning in the water waiting for a lifeline, but dead at the bottom of the ocean, needing new life? This is how it happens, and once Jesus reveals himself, his grace is irresistible. O, how we should pray that he would do this in those close to us! Listen to Asch's description of the experience on the Damascus road:

"At the edge of the road lies Saul, as though a mighty hand had flung him down. About him stand his companions, paralyzed with amazement. His face is turned up to the open sky, his eyes are open, foam breaks out on his lips. His companions hear Saul's voice. He is speaking with someone. They catch a few words. They know he is seeing a vision. They are terrified by the dread occasion of which they are the witnesses.

"Before Saul's face stands a man. A man who is spirit and flesh and blood. He is taller than any man Saul has ever seen. Yet he is not a giant; he is an ordinary man; a Rabbi, in prayer-shawl and phylacteries; with great eyes, mournful yet radiant, filled with faith and love, eyes such as Saul has often seen among the disciples. His beard and earlocks are black, interwoven with gray. A man, not an angel; clothed in white, as for the Sabbath. Even in his present condition Saul's thoughts are clear enough for him to recall that God created man in His own image. Therefore he who stands before him in the likeness of a man may be a spirit of the Lord. But he stretches out his hands to Saul, and the sorrow on his face is a human sorrow. His eyes are filled with tears, in the midst of which swim the brown pupils. His lips are distorted in pain, as though all the anguish in the world had passed into him. He stretches out his hands to Saul, and the unhappy voice is that of a simple man who suffers, even as Saul has seen so many suffer:

"'Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?'

"In the voice Saul hears the silent protest of all those whom he has tormented; in the face of the man, in the expression of pain on the thin lips, he sees all the pain of all those who he has caused to suffer.

"The men standing about Saul hear him ask: 'Who art thou, lord?' Saul hears the reply: 'I am Yeshua of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.'"

As we know from Scripture, Saul next asks what he should do, and the Lord begins to show him. It is from this man whom we have the Book of Romans. It is the Spirit of this Lord, "spirit and flesh and blood", "mournful yet radiant", who speaks to us still today through His word. And it is this question, with which every person is confronted as they sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand of their conscience: "Why dost thou persecute me?" Why do we suppress the truth? The truth that is plain to us, because God has shown it to us? For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, from what has been made. So we are without excuse. For although we know God, who do not honor him as God or give thanks to him, and our thinking has become futile and our foolish hearts are darkened. Claiming to be wise, we have become fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man, and birds and animals, and crawling things. Yes, this we have done. All of us. And Jesus asks us with "lips distorted in pain, as though all the anguish of the world had passed into him" - why do you persecute me? Why do you exchange my eternal glory for temporal idols?

The only coherent response to this question, given our condition, so vividly described in Romans 1, is: what must I do, Lord? We have no reasons to offer as to why we have done this. We have no rebuttal. Our mouth is stopped. Except to say, if we would, "what must I do?"