Archive for June, 2012

In Paul’s Footsteps

Bob sits at “the spot” where Paul probably disembarked to W. Europe

In a small suburb of Naples on the Bay of Napoli, we were surprised to find the spot where the Apostle Paul first placed his foot on the Western European sub-continent. Acts 28:13-14 describes Paul after his ship-wreck and leaving Malta:

13 From there we circled round and reached Rhegium. And after one day the south wind blew; and the next day we came to Puteoli, 14 where we found brethren, and were invited to stay with them seven days. And so we went toward Rome.”

It turns out that Puteoli of the NT is Puzzuoli of modern Italy. Charlie drove us through just a few neighborhoods from where he lives, and Gail and I stood on the spot that is traditionally considered to be Paul’s landing spot. It is now, of course, marked by its own church. It is interesting to note that there were already Christians in Puteoli before Paul’s arrival there who welcomed him and offered him hospitality on his was to Rome.

The church in Puzzuoli that marks the spot where Paul landed in W. Europe

In Paul’s day, Puteoli was the arrival point of all vessels bound for Rome (170 miles distant). It was a thriving seaport, receiving ships with passengers and cargo from all over the known world. In Puteoli, we saw the ruins of the third largest Roman coliseum in the world, where many Christians were martyred during the later persecutions. The most famous martyr was the patron saint of Puzzuoli, San Procolo, who was beheaded in the fourth century in the town, but not in the coliseum itself.

The city is surrounded by interesting sites. The hills of the town are dotted with old stones that look like natural outcroppings now, covered as they are by plants and trees. But they are actually ruins from the Roman era, rising up out of antiquity to form the sidewall of a restaurant or private property. The Roman emperors had their summer villas across the bay, all underwater now as the land has shifted due to volcanic activity – Charlie said it is a good diving site today as you can dive among the ruins.

 The “lake of fire” described by Virgil and later by Dante, which was thought to be the gateway to Hades and the River Styxx, is an actual place on the way to Puzzuoli, in a caldera (old volcano crater) that, in those days, was filled with molten, steaming mud. But apparently Nero attempted to build a canal across this area and flooded the caldera with sea water. So today the gate to Hades is a quiet little lake surrounded by resort villas. We could still see active steam vents throughout the area that indicate that the old volcano is still down there somewhere, perhaps guarding the gate and the entrance to that legendary river.

In the downtown area, there are ruins of what was originally thought to be a temple, but was later discovered to be a meat market. Apparently, when the Romans brought in beasts for the “summer games” at the coliseum, a certain percentage either died in transport or shortly after their arrival. The old ruin was actually the market where they sold the meat from those exotic beasts.

Puzzuoli is a now charming little Italian seaside village.

To Italians WWII is like yesterday because of the liberation from the fascist rule of Mussolini, and then, shortly thereafter, from the Nazis’s. Charlie explained that generally, Italians love Americans, but hate our policies.

One of the evidences that remains of the war is in the many different styles of architecture in Napoli, some dating back centuries. However, Charlie pointed out to us that if a building has simple grating on their windows and balconies, then the building was damaged during the bombings of WWII and has been restored or completely rebuilt. If the buildings have ornate, scrolled or artistic-looking ironwork, then the building was not damaged at that time and the iron work pre-exists the war.

Many times we noticed these buildings side-by side, one whose iron-work shows that it was “restored” or rebuilt after the war, and one that pre-dates the war and was not apparently damaged significantly.

How little we Americans can relate to this aspect of culture! How fortunate we are!

Here are some pictures of the difference between the styles of iron-work.

Ornate iron-work indicating Pre-WWII construction

We Have Left Italy

We have left Italy today and are now in Paris after traveling all day. Since we’ve been inside the European system, we have not been through any kind of customs again. Apparently, you can travel freely within Europe without worrying about customs, which makes things easier. It’s just like traveling state to state, except that we have to show our passport to get our ticket.

I will elaborate about our time in Italy more over the coming days. We are now going to meet Gail’s mother in Paris tomorrow for a vacation she is taking the family on. We will join Gail’s sister and brother and his wife in this adventure: 3 days in Paris, then a river cruise in Germany. This is a great way to come off the intensity of our time in Italy.

We finished two Life Purpose Seminars back to back for small groups that Charlie and Shannon have been working with and developing relationships with. The response was very good with lots of interest and very good questions. Some of them were very excited about the information and I expect them to continue to pursue their Life Purpose until they have “caught it.” The attendance was small but held through all the sessions for the most part. Considering that the people were not active Christians, it was amazing that they responded so well to our faith-based material, especially as I tried to tie it to having a relationship with God continually. Several of them indicated that they were greatly encouraged by it. All in all, only two bailed on the seminar after the first session – too much “God talk,” I suspect. But all in all most of the folks stayed with us.

The second aspect of the trip for us was Charlie taking us through the orientation on Napoli and Italians in general and the spiritual situation in Italy, which I have alluded to in previous blogs. We would walk through various parts of the city during the day till lunch or early afternoon, and then teach the seminars at night till about 10 pm. I will elaborate on some of the sights we saw and things we learned over the next week, so stay tuned.

We were able to stay in a small apartment, and when we went to “pay” for the week, the lady who was sharing it with us – a friend of the Worthy’s who had attended the LP seminar – refused to take any money for our stay. This was a great blessing from her and her husband and the Lord to us and a sweet act of generosity. The apartment was on the 5th floor of their apartment building and was a one room kitchenette. It suited our purposes very well and we were very comfortable there.

More detail tomorrow after we meet up with Gail’s family at the airport at 7 am, then shuttle into the city and settle into a different hotel. I’m sure they will all be a bit jet-lagged. Tonight we are in a hotel near Charles DeGaulle Airport, which is supposed to be in Paris, but there is no sign of Paris around here. The horizons are all rural farm land. So I’m thinking Paris is a bit of a ride to get into the city from here.

More tomorrow.

Reality Check

Okay, here’s a picture. Take a look at it and then I will interpret it.

Chalie fills up his KIA minivan.

So Charlie takes me with him to fill up the minivan at the local Italian gasseria. This is the result at the pump. It’s impressive in Euros and Liters (E109.00 for 62.79 liters), but what it really means is: 16.59 gallons of gas for $136.25. That’s $8.21 per gallon. Reality check for us all!

Finished 1st Seminar

We finished our first Life Purpose Seminar tonight. The new system we are experimenting with was just awesome – can’t wait to use it back home without the translator.

We were working with a small, but quality group of Italians who have not yet committed their lives to Christ, but have a relationship with Charlie and Shannon. As I worked with them over the last three days in the evenings, they learned the principles of finding their life purpose. Tonight they asked the kind of questions a teacher prays for. I was able to present the gospel truths twice and solidly tie that down with them. They continued to ask deeper and more risky personal type questions about God, and both Gail and I were able to speak into their lives.

As far as commitments to Christ, we’re letting Charlie and Shannon continue the follow-up with the ones that are interested further. At the very end of our time tonight, one young lady asked a question that was quite risky for her considering that they didn’t know us very well. We were able to minister to her quite effectively, and we know this is all the work of the Holy Spirit.

Throughout the seminars the Spirit has been doing little things that I think will stick in me and become permanent parts of the LP seminar. It’s been quite an adventure so far. Last night I shared about my name, and tonight Gail shared her “rock” story. Each time, their response was amazing in that they seemed to open up after that and ask really deep and meaningful questions. This, of course, is the permission we need to share Christ with them.

I will teach the seminar again beginning tomorrow night. The first time was done in three 2 hour sessions. Tomorrow we will go to two 3 hr sessions Monday and Tuesday. We will also complete a make-up for a couple of students that couldn’t make the last session tonight. So tomorrow night, I will start at 5 pm with the make-up session, and then start the second seminar from 7:30 to 10:30pm.

We spend the days getting oriented to Napoli and Italy by Charlie, and the evenings teaching the seminar. Life is good. More tomorrow.

P.S. There is a European cup soccer tournament tonight between Italy and Great Britain. So as we sit in our tiny apartment, 5 floors up in our particular apartment building, with the windows cranked wide open to the dark night because of the heat, we are bombarded with the squeal of airhorns and screams of celebration or raucous shouts of outrage pouring out of the open windows on every side around us as the Italian team scores or is scored upon. Italians are crazy for soccer, or “futbol,” and we are right in the middle of it tonight! We don’t need to watch the game ourselves – we can read everything that is happening in the communal reaction of all these fans. That one right there, for instance, was obviously a score, while the previous outburst was a near miss.

Offices ony on first floor. The rest is housing. Every window represents a family.

1/2 of 1% are believers.

So, Why Italy?

Many are tempted to ask, when we tell them we are going to Italy on a mission trip, why we want to go to a well-known tourist destination for a “mission” (wink wink). Specifically, we are going to Naples, Italy, or Napoli as the Italians call it. While it is true that there are many Christian groups working in Northern Italy, there are few in Southern Italy, and very few in Napoli. Napoli has a population of 4.5 million in the metropolitan area. Less than half a percent, yes, that’s less than .5%, would confess that they have an active relationship with Jesus Christ. A recent statistic that has been given about Italy is that a child born in China today has five times more chance to become a believing Christian than one born in Italy.

Well, they are Catholics, so doesn’t that count for something, you say. The fact is, I am told by Charlie Worthy, the SBC missionary I am working with here, most Neapolitan people have an antagonistic relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. They go to catechism sometime during their early teens, but for 90% of them, it is the last time they darken the door of a church facility. That includes Christmas and Easter. Italians are Catholic by family, but most are not by practice. They are highly humanistic in philosophy, only reverting to Roman Catholic roots when a tragedy occurs or there is a needful family related occasion, like a wedding or a baptism. So in that respect, they are not so different from Americans.

However, the family ties to the official state church keep them locked into a spiritual vacuum where they can’t move forward and they can’t move backward – they don’t trust the established religious order, but their family ties prevent them from going another direction. If they go to the priests with a question here, I am told that the priests tell them not to read the Bible, but just to listen to the Church. The vast majority of Italians become humanistic materialists who practice a mix of old and new, astrology and new age, atheism, agnosticism and numerology, etc. From the highest point in the city, the castle of St. Elmo, you can see hundreds of church domes spread throughout the city. Most of them are museums now; the rest serve a tiny percentage of the population and are rarely more than 10% full on any given Sunday. Coupled with a broken economy and a 30%+ unemployment rate where the largest employer and the only one with any advancement opportunities is a certain famous old Italian family, Napoli is spiritually crippled.

The society itself presents another barrier to change. Many of the citizens of Napoli, like in most Italian cities, will never even leave their neighborhoods, let alone their cities, to travel the world and see what else is out there. Culturally, they continue old traditions of city-statehood where their loyalties lie with the specific culture into which they were born. They might become “Italians” for the international soccer competitions or maybe for the national elections, but otherwise they are Neapolitans, or Florentines, or Romans, or Venetians.  “Italy” as a political entity came into being officially in 1870 with the last city-state joining the union after WWI – so Italy is a very young country as a country, but an ancient one in terms of Italian people grouped geographically on the Italian peninsula. Most of the cities even still speak their own dialects as well as Italian.

Charlie is tasked here with evaluating the condition of evangelical Christianity in all of Italy. So far he has isolated 30+ cities of 50-70,000 population that have no evangelical presence of any kind. He tells me he has just begun this survey, and so this is very low figure.

The primary emotional atmosphere here is “hopelessness.” There are so few opportunities that typically the sons don’t leave the home until they are past age 35 because they can’t get a job that pays enough to support a family (this statistic was from an Italian teacher I spoke with in her home). Most won’t leave to find work elsewhere because they are Neapolitans.  I was amused by a story told by a small group of people I was interacting with last night after the first round of the Life Purpose Seminar. They were talking about a relative who had emigrated to the U.S. (which is very unusual). He has apparently found work, and so they were sharing the news. He is working in an Italian restaurant, and yes, all the other employees are also Neapolitans.

Why Italy? It was the 3rd missionary work planted by SBC missionaries, after China and Africa. However, it is one of the most difficult fields to work because of the reasons outlined above. Italy is known by missionaries as a missionary “graveyard,” meaning that it is so hard to reach the people with the Gospel that most missionaries resign and go to another field after 3-4 years. Charlie and Shannon are in their eighth year, which is significant. Today Italy remains the least evangelized country in Western Europe. And Gail and I get to be here by the grace of God. So, wow!

We are in Naples, Italy, for a week with Charlie and Shannon Worthy, SBC missionaries serving there. We will conduct two Life Purpose Seminars for the folks in their neighborhood that they have been sharing with for the last eight years. Then we will conduct prayer walks and explore other options with them for future mission work in Italy.

So a few introductory remarks from my journal about the trip over here, which is often the most difficult part of the trip, i.e., just getting here. Keep in mind, when I write about something like this, I might exaggerate a little bit. The reason for this is that the process of traveling is usually not that interesting, but in the first day or so of being “on the field” that’s the only thing that’s happened so far. So, I might make things a little more interesting by placing the emphasis on the more interesting parts – fair warning! Here goes…

We flew out of the DFW airport at around 4 pm CST on Sunday bound for Naples by way of Frankfurt, Paris, Munich, and finally, Naples. It was a very crowded flight, and I have never seen so many children on a flight, “Well, it’s summer,” says Gail, which I guess means that children are allowed to travel in the summertime. Truth is, I love children – I am a proud grandfather of 7, so have some experience loving them and being proud. So none of my observations are made with the slightest hint of irritation. They are just observations.

As far as the children on this flight though, I’m talking about, and, remember, I love them, LOUD children. Several in our cabin were babies who were suffering the normal ear popping and pressure issues of first flight, and you can’t help but pity them for their inability to deal with this normal difficulty of flying. Unfortunately, they were crying most of the time – 10 hours. At least one of the wailing, inconsolable waifs was a future opera soprano if I know anything – I think the cabin decompressed two or three times during the flight due to the window glass shattering.

After what I would have guessed was four hours of the flight, I glanced up at the monitor hanging from the ceiling that shows where our plane is relative to the world beneath. We were just passing over the Arkansas state line. Hmmm, I thought to myself. This is going to be a lo-o-o-n-n-ng flight.

I counted 8 children under 10 in the five rows around us. In the seat right behind us, the young lad was prostrate sideways in his seat, playing on his gameboy the entire flight. Late in the night once when I woke up for a “break,” I noticed that he was still wide awake, intensely focused on his game and kicking his foot. The receiver of this footplay was a very sleepy dad who kept getting kicked in the stomach, then jerking awake, displaying a haunted look as he glanced down at the source of his wakefulness, and then trying to nod off again, only to be freshly kicked awake. I think this went on all night because in the morning, the normally slightly overweight six foot four inch athletic type dad had progressed from merely haunted to gaunt and despairing, like the survivor of a concentration camp. But just as we were landing, I noticed that the lad, bless him, was finally deep asleep. I commented to Mom and Dad, “Now he’s asleep, just when we need to move.” They just chuckled helplessly.

The only other issue I noticed with the children who were luxuriating in the miracle of flight was a child in the side seats to our right and a little forward. Sometime deep in the darkness of early morning, he or she discovered that when the food tray moved in just a certain manner, it made the most ungodly, screeching, fingernails-on-blackboard sound. So, of course, this had to be repeated over and over and over and over….well, you get the picture. The sound stopped abruptly though – I pictured some adult nearby with their hands around the little throat. Periodically throughout the rest of the night, there were small experimental single repetitions, like one of those tiny Jurassic dinosaur-lizard things calling the rest of the pack for a fresh kill. I’m guessing that every time Mom and Dad nodded off, then…

Now you can tell by this time that when I wrote this entry in my journal, I hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night. Aside from the floor show, the seats were barely wide enough for me to fit into, let alone a larger person, and I had to butter my sides to accomplish it – mind you, I’m down twenty pounds too. So sleeping was a bit of an athletic accomplishment anyway, being held in place by the tightly packed masses around you. Additionally, the cramped space effect is further “enhanced” by the passenger right in front of you reclining their seat back as far as possible and ending up basically with their head in your lap, pinning your legs under their seat back. I asked them if they’d like me to rub their forehead while they drifted off, but they didn’t speak English, and so just looked up into my eyes blankly before ignoring me and going to sleep.

In this particular super jet, the steward call buttons were on our armrests, and at least once I was wakened suddenly by an arm reaching down across me as the stewardess punched my call button and mumbled something about please-don’t-lean-on-the-button-with-your–elbow in a tone that might have been slightly irritated, or, on the other hand, merely tired of repeating this instruction dozens of times each flight as they had to deal continually with this obvious design flaw. I mean, really, when my love handles are hanging over into the seat next to me because it’s so narrow, where am I supposed to put my arms if not daintily resting them on the “arm-rests????” Needless to say, severe “elbow anxiety” also contributed to getting less sleep than I might have.

So we arrived in Frankfurt literally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, which I think refers to being red-eyed and having a wild hairdo. At least that’s how I would describe Gail’s fashion approach as we de-planed. Far above all that fashion stuff, my hair, of course, looked just like it did when I boarded.