Friday, July 10, 2015

Matters Of the Heart

I wanted to write and share some things that have been happening lately.  It’s not a typical update-more a journal of thoughts.  It’s long so I am posting as a blog post rather than a regular update.

Anyway, God has really been doing a lot in my heart and mind over the past years since being in Italy.   Before we moved, I thought it was going to be heavenly-the picture most of us have of Italians is overly friendly, always inviting you over for something to eat, hospitable, etc.  I truly imagined that within a year I would be fluent in Italian and trying to keep up with my planner with so many invites.  Ha ha, was I ever setting myself up for disappointment and serious disillusionment.
When we arrived there was the curious neighbor or two peeking through their window across the way as we would walk through our kitchen.  Thankfully I knew how to say ‘ciao’ but quickly discovered that you only say that when you know a person well.  Jim was actually rebuked at the toll place because he said ‘ciao’ to the guy.  It was quite strange and we were left wondering where were these friendly Italians!   I soon discovered that though we lived in a neighborhood, people went to work in the morning, came home and went inside.  I was perplexed!  After a while, we realized there is a huge difference between the north of Italy and the south of Italy.  It is a bit like California in many ways with the differences between north and south.

For the first few years we would pray and try to start some program, some outreach, some something-anything that would bring people to church.  We started out on Saturday evenings and were overly excited when the Lord opened up a place for us to have church service on Sunday mornings.  Once again-our expectations were so high, only to be brought down to the lowest point.  We realized that most would come on Saturday evening because they either went somewhere else on Sunday morning or didn’t have to wake up on Sunday morning for church.  Here in Italy most children go to school until 1pm on Saturday so Sunday am is the day to sleep in.  Once again, we were asking God why, what, how, etc.  We were barely hanging on by a thread.  Thankfully, we know that it’s ok to hang on to Jesus by only a thread.  When the world, even the church, looks at you as failures when you are hanging on by a thread, Jesus is well pleased that you didn’t just cut the thread off, rather used it to cling to Him.

I remember one particular Sunday leaving church and burst into tears.  I looked at Jim and said ‘I just can’t do this anymore’.  You see, in Hungary, though we had our share of challenges, we really didn’t have much of a problem ministering to people.   Hungary, though many are Catholic, there are also many Protestants.  We also had the poor and needy, we had those who would come and listen.  Some stayed and grew in their relationship with the Lord, some chose not to.  But, the difference was, it wasn’t so difficult to invite them to come and see.  One person begat another after being set free and we were thrilled to see God work in so many lives.  We couldn’t find people to come and see here in Padova.  We would make up flyers, sometimes using the last euro we had for another two weeks, only to see them crumbled up and splattered across the ground.  Our hearts sank and we wondered so often if God’s money couldn’t be better used elsewhere.  We just couldn’t seem to get the people to care enough to engage in conversation or even be curious enough to come to a Sunday service.

Lo and behold, one day Marla and I were walking in the city center and we saw a poster on the window of a Bar.  It was for an English Club that met once a week where everyone was invited to come and practice speaking English.  It was quite interesting and I went home to tell Jim about it.  Of course when it came time to go, I decided that the word ‘bar’ prohibited this pastor’s wife from going.  “What would people think if they knew I went to a bar?”  “How could I possibly carry on a conversation with someone, even if it was in English, at a bar?” These and other fears kept me from going.  I told Jim he could go check it out if he wanted but there was no way this girl was going to be around such a crowd of people.  He went, came home, and couldn’t say enough good things about it.  He said there were about 100 people all ages, from many countries and it was great.  A bar here is so much different than what we thought of.  It is a sandwich place and people may drink one thing through the evening if anything.  So different than what we considered a bar atmosphere.  Needless to say, I joined him the following week and was amazed.  It was so fun and a pleasant environment.  The people we met actually wanted to speak to us and Jim was able to share the Gospel with those he felt God sending his way. 

Over the last year and a half, the Lord has taught me so much.  All my Christian life, I never really had to go outside the church for fellowship.  Within the busyness of church functions there wasn’t a need to go out and meet unsaved people.  There was enough to do with the church.  It was good-very good and I grew so much.  I loved women’s ministry and still do.  I love discipling other women.  I love all that ministry involves in this way.  But, I hadn’t had to go outside the church until we moved to Padova.  In my mind, it was going to be the same as Hungary.  People would come and want to be discipled, then bring their friends and the chain would continue.  But wasn’t going to be this way and I was so distraught.  I cannot tell you how many times I cried, how many times I wanted to quit, to give up being in ministry all together and just ‘be a Christian’ and have my husband have a ‘normal’ job and we could be the ones writing checks to others once again.  Yes, it may sound alarming and unfaithful to some, but that is where I was at.  I could no longer see the reason God would have us in a place where no one was interested.  I thought of all the horrid things some had said about us in the past and started to believe that oh yes, they must have been right and we are worthless, useless.  I tried so, so hard to beg God to just take us away from this place.  He never allowed it to happen.  Fleece after fleece was being met by Him and to be honest, at times I was disappointed that He provided the fleece because I thought ‘oh no, here we go again-is it a trick”?  God had a plan and it would be His way, His timing. 

God showed me that no two places are alike.  Through the English Club I started meeting quite a few people.  Ladies who were my age and even some younger.  I was excited but nervous.  From the start, they knew why Jim and I were here and what we were all about.  It was so awesome to see week after week when we were at the bar how the same people would come talk to Jim even knowing he was going to be talking about the Lord.  Now when some see him they call out ‘hey pastor, I really need to talk to you one of these days’.  We have been able to see a guy who is about Jim’s age, tell him the first night they met ‘well, I am an atheist’ and yet he has come to our home for meals, went to events we had with church and now for the first time has actually come to a church service.  “you make it sound so simple Jim” he said!  Yes!!! It is that simple!!!  Another gal we met from there has been coming to church and telling her friends about what she is learning.  Others will come when we have special events, even at Easter we had many come.  I am learning patience.  Learning that it is up to God to do the work in the lives of others while I need to be willing to be out of my comfort zone and go and do as He leads.  We have learned that God indeed has a plan for the place He has called us to but we had to allow Him to take the old wineskins of our thinking and allow Him to give us new ones. 

This past week has been exceptional.  Two ladies I met at the English Club both invited me out different times during this week and ended up pouring out their heart to me.  Each said they really liked that my life seems so simple and it’s different than most they know.  God so graciously allowed me to insert His grace and love in our conversation and I am thrilled.  In the past, I would have given up on them a long time ago.  They have come to our ladies Tea and a couple events but one has not come to Sunday service.  In the past, I would have sadly written her off as one not interested and tried to move on to someone new.  But God!  His ways are not my ways, His thoughts are not my thoughts. His timing is not my timing.  Oh what I would have missed out on had I been my old self.  What I would be missing out on right now had I allowed my fears to take over because or the word 'bar'.   Most all the friendships Jim and I have now, most all the people who come to the church events, are those we have met through this English Club!

One of the biggest things the Lord has shown me these past few months is not to judge the work by who shows up on Sundays.  As I read through the Gospels there is very little mentioned about a Sunday service and what was going on ‘in the church’.  Jesus’s ministry was everywhere.  He was up on a hill teaching, in a boat, by a well, in peoples’ homes, at a beach bbq.  Not all of our ministries are going to look alike and I have learned that that is ok.  I am one who has the tendency to look around at others and compare myself to them.  You can imagine that that only leads to depression and destruction of heart. 

It is a slow process, but I can say that we see the fruits of the labor.  I cannot imagine that I wanted to give up and yet God was so very faithful and didn’t let us quit.  I know that God loves the people here and we love being His servants.  I love that He doesn’t think like the world and say we are too old or can’t be used by Him.  I love that He loves us and loves to shake our world at times to show us that it really is all about Him-that we don’t get to a point in our lives where we  have this ‘Christian Ministry’ down to a tee and think we could do it in our sleep.  God help us when our thoughts go there!!!  May we never think, no matter how long we have served Him, that there isn’t something different He wants to teach us, to show us.  Our work truly must be all about Him and the only way it can be all about Him is when He is in control.  He is taking the lead and we are willingly laying down not only our lives, but our way of thinking and doing so that His work can be accomplished.

I pray that through my struggles, doubts and fears that some may be strengthened and know that it’s never too late to surrender to Him.  Whether it be your desires, your thoughts, your plans, your way of doing what you’re used to, or even clinging to what you know.  Don’t try to stick with what you know.  If you are right now holding onto a thread that is ok.  He will take that thread and make something beautiful out of it if you let Him.

Please continue to pray for us, the ministry here and the lives God has intertwined with ours.  Pray that we would always be clay in the hands of our gracious and loving Potter.