With Friends in Parma

After Milan, we had fairly short train journey to the city of Parma, which long time readers will recognize as one of our favourite places in all of Italy, and one of our stops on the first trip we took to Italy. Here we met up for a short visit with Tony Hedrick, who has done more than anyone to get us started in Italy.

There is just something about Parma: pristine streets and squares, beautiful buildings, a stunning castle, and the best (and most reasonably priced) food that we’ve come across. Since it is the birthplace of parmigiano reggiano and parma ham, you know they must have something figured out. I could spend a lot of my life, without regret, strolling it’s streets and sampling it’s kitchens.

But the best part of Parma are our friends who live there, all of whom have been an incredible source of support and inspiration for us. The idea of moving to Italy is far less intimidating because we know we have them to count on.

Unfortunately, because of my inability to plan a reasonable amount of activity within a sensible amount of time, I’m left with a tinge of regret that we didn’t linger a little longer. But a 48hrs is better than none at all, and since our stay spanned a Sunday, we were able to spend some time at the church, which we have heard so much about but have never experienced firsthand. We have written previously that the Italian churches that we have seen haven’t been as boisterous as one would expect from such a fun culture, perhaps a legacy of the Catholic church. This one was the opposite, helped by a large Latin American contingent who are doing a great job setting a tone, and a place with amazing worship, hospitality, and all of those other things that a church needs.

As a representative of the Canadian church-and by extension our brothers in the UK and the US, with whom we have so much in common-I think we all need to experience a powerful church service in a foreign setting to remember that we are not the pinnacle of all that the church can be. We have spent a long time in the position of those with much to offer, and for good reason. After all, God has been doing some great stuff, and for a long time. There is nothing wrong with believing that we have something to contribute to our brothers and sisters around the world, and I am fully convinced that God expects us to be generous with all that he has given to us. But when we begin to think that they are somehow reliant on us-that without us they would wither and die-is to underestimate the work of the Holy Spirit. God hasn’t set the church in one area of the world to be givers, and everywhere else to be receivers, like some sort of missional charity. We are all givers, and all receivers, and in equal parts, all the while operating simultaneously in generosity and humility.

So although our time in Parma was far too short, we look forward to many return visits, both to offer some of ourselves and what God has entrusted to us, and to receive something in return.
IMG_6584Atop the same castle with Francesco and Allesia, friends from Parma
Strolling through Parma with TonyThe family in Parma

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Gelato and Pizza

The past six days were spent as a family traveling though northern Italy. We went, netbook in hand, with every intention of blogging all through the trip, offering observations of what we were seeing and experiencing. Alas, the realities of traveling with two young and energetic children took its toll, meaning that at the end of each day, we barely had the energy to brush our teeth and stumble into bed, let alone delve into anything deeper, such as blogging.

And so we have arrived home, and as a substitute, I’ll write three entries over the next few days, one for each stage of the trip, plus anything else to follow as it comes up.

The first place we went was Milan, simply because that’s where Easyjet took us. I can’t say it’s really my kind of city-a bit too busy, not exactly lovely, and it’s distressing to be in a place where, even if you have your absolute best set of clothes on, you are still the worst dressed person in any given room. It seems that Milan’s main draw is shopping, judging by the prodigious quantity of catalogues scattered around our hotel, and the TV channels devoted to fashion shows.

It was a little surprising to find our ‘close to city centre’ hotel somewhere out in the suburbs, but we got over that. In the end, we were only able to see a little of the interesting parts of the city. Actually, we only got to the castle, which, along with pretty much everything else in Italy, was a little bit lessened since Napoleon dropped by. It seems that he had some great idea of a garden complex, and so knocked down the outer wall to make the necessary room. But as the garden was never completed, all that is left behind is a slightly less dramatic castle.

Our need to move along to Parma, and the impatience of the kids, kept us from seeing much more, but we’ll have to be okay with that. We came for networking, meeting some people, observing ministry, and all of those things. But at the same time we came so that the kids could finally experience Italy for themselves. We’ve been talking about it for almost two years now, and it was always a little difficult to know what they were thinking about our plans. I think that Italy existed as little more than a theoretical construct, which is hard to get excited about. Me and Julia desperately wanted them to feel as excited about Italy as we are. Maybe, in their own way, to feel God calling THEM to Italy. That, at least, was our hope and prayer as we stepped off the plane. We had no idea what God was going to do with it.

In hindsight, it seems that God, in his infinite wisdom, has chosen to use gelato and pizza to call Mitchell and Vika to Italy. Pizza of course is everywhere. And amazing. Pizza Hut is dead to me, and it will be a long time before the kids get excited about a pizza we pull from our freezer. But the highlight was the gelato, which for those of you who have never been to Italy, is even more omnipresent in Italy than Tim Horton’s are in Canada. Our days ended huddled around a takeaway container with assorted flavours, the worst of which is still better than anything Ben and Jerry could come up with.

As much as they enjoyed walking around, seeing some great things, having fun with new friends, it is the food that has stuck. I would roll my eyes at them as they go on and on about it, but maybe that is really how God is working in them. I have no difficulty in God taking something that we love-even something as trite as tasty food-and using it to ignite our passion. I even suspect that it’s a bit fun for him, that he enjoys our enjoyment. And so we enjoyed our pizza and gelato without shame, looking forward to a future with much, much more.

Thinking out loud…

This last month has seen some pretty exciting things happen in our preparation for Italy-lots of new relationships, planning two trips, and the beginning of Italian classes. But with all of that we still have plenty going on here in the UK. Julia has begun a Bible study with a group of ladies, even while she continues to plan for an ESL (English as a Second Language) outreach to some of the many immigrants in London.

Meanwhile, I’ve been moving forward with the youth here in the church. It’s been an interesting journey. On the whole, it has been going well. The plan was to focus on building a leadership that can carry on after we leave, plus to work with the group as a whole to increase the depth of their relationship with God. Although I had expected progress, it’s actually been better than I had hoped. I think this is partially due to a willingness to engage with what is happening, which I suspect would be a good thing for us passively-inclined Canadians to learn.

Well that’s the good part. I’m struggling to know how to turn growth in one direction into growth in all dimensions. As happy as I am that they individuals who are there are growing in their relationship with Jesus, how does this get turned into effective outreach to their friends?

I used to think that it would happen automatically, but I’m less sure that is how it happens. Most churches that I have known are either good at building depth into their members or mission to their community, but few have been equally proficient in each. If either is missing from the DNA of a church or other group when it forms, it is horribly difficult to try to splice it in later.

But difficult though it may be, I don’t see how we have a choice.

There is so much tension necessary in recognizing what God has done without ignoring what is left to do. On one hand, it is no good becoming so caught up with what is lacking that we forget to celebrate the progress that has been made. But at the same time, we want to avoid the complacency of looking backwards while forgetting to move forwards.

So while I’m sure that one of these days the way to teach a group of youth become missionaries to their peers will all be clear, it is not today.

Bicycles and Airplanes

When Julia returned from last month’s trip to Italy, she did so with the realization that the biggest obstacle to us doing anything useful in Italy is the language barrier. With that in mind we have graduated from tutoring in Italian to formal language training through a local community college, starting last week. Given the need for someone to be home with the kids, we are taking the course separately, and although Julia is able to attend a course only a short walk away, I’m forced to journey for mine. I took the bus last week, but it was long and expensive, so this morning I took a bike I borrowed and hope to purchase. Anyone who has grown up in a city will think this ride an unimpressive achievement. But I’m not used to dodging traffic or minuscule bike lanes or the hazards of construction. On the trails in Port Alberni that I did most of my riding, the only things I had to worry about were tree stumps and over-curious squirrels. This was less fun.

But it is amazing how much quicker it is. What took me an hour by bus last week took me twenty minutes, including delays where I tried to figure out where I was and if I was going anywhere near the right direction. Plus one is able to notice things that are otherwise missed, for example:
Buses are driven with the expectation that you will get out of their way. Since a bike will generally lose to a bus, I feel it best to just go with it.
A disproportionate amount of large trucks and tour buses are Polish. I’m not sure why that matters, but there you are.

We are hoping to get enough out of the lessons we have this month to have something to practice when we spend five days in Italy later this month. We had expected to spend more than five days, but we delayed buying our tickets overnight as we considered some options for our return. It was a mistake. Apparently, ticket prices can triple in less than twelve hours, which has forced us to trim a couple of days off the trip. Our intention was only to make that error once.

But then I tried to buy tickets for a separate trip to Turin in December to meet with house church networks there and assist in an outreach to university students. This time, I had bought my ticket for the way out, but had the website crash before I could get the ticket for the way home. Today, two days further on, I looked again, this time to find that the price had dropped, saving me a nice sum.

All this to say that, after more than a decade of reasonably frequent travel, I still have no idea how the airlines work.