Thinking Out Loud

July 22, 2017

A Place Where God Isn’t

Filed under: Christianity, personal — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:43 am

Crowds in Prague are looking upward, not for some spiritual reason, but rather waiting for the 12:00 Noon strike of the Astronomical Clock

First of all, let’s deal with the theological error in today’s title. No, there is no place where God is not present, but I’m sure there are many places in this world, beyond the ones that we explored, where it seems that way.

Our last tour guide said something to the effect, “Most people here [Czech Republic] do not have a religion because we’ve [collectively, historically] tried religion and we see that it doesn’t do anything [help, solve problems].”

Again, we need to look at a statement like that theologically as well, because if the Bible teaches us anything it shows that when it appears “there is no one left” it often turns out that God has a remnant of people who have stayed loyal to him.

Peering through the glass doors at the back while a Priest leads a small group in a midweek 5:00 PM mass.

In the 2011 census, 34.5% claimed no religion and 44.7% did not answer the question. That situation leaves us with 10.4% Roman Catholic, 0.5% identified with an Evangelical denomination there and 0.8% claiming affiliation with “Christian churches not exactly stated” along with even smaller percentages of other groups.

However, we know that historically, under Communism, answering a question about religion on a government survey would be unwise. It’s possible that in that combined 79.2% saying they are ‘nones’ or skipping the question there is room for belief.

Still, it stands in contrast to the vast number of cathedrals and churches and synagogues (0.01% present membership) that are clustered throughout the cities and countryside. It stands in contrast to the degree to which religious belief is interwoven throughout the country’s history.

At the end of June, a four day rally or festival was held in Prague, the third such summer event held as part of the Awakening Europe series begun with Nuremberg in 2015 and Stockholm in 2016.  On their website, one of the organizers wrote:

Even though it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world outwardly, to my heart it seemed like Nineveh, caught in the valley of decision – not knowing where to go. There are many cities like it all across Central Europe…

That’s how I felt. Despite the history. Despite the beautiful churches. The words of the tour guide keep echoing as I write this.

On the second last day, I told her that for some of us, the Jesus story is real, and vital, and life-changing and something we commit our lives to daily. She was cordial, but I felt like I was being met by a blank stare.


Awakening Europe (June 29 – July 2) on YouTube. Organizers from the UK’s GOD-TV seem to have brought a Charismatic worship style, but I hope they presented a strong apologetic that would rationally and intellectually present the Christian message to seekers. My other concern with this event is that possibly the majority of attendees were simply Christians from other parts of Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

July 20, 2017

Sensory Overload

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:02 am

Up until the night we arrived in Prague, there were two times in recent memory when I experienced sensory overload.

The first was expected. Fireworks on New Years Eve at Walt Disney World in Orlando. They actually do an early show and then another at midnight and we stayed for both. But that was anticipated.

The second was unexpected, and happened in just a moment. Our youngest son had the lead role in a play at his college and when the curtain call came and the applause intensified when he took his bow, as a parent I wasn’t exactly pleased or proud. I was dazzled. That was our kid they were clapping for. I wish him more successes like that.

But now I must add a third one. We had arrived in Prague late in the day and after a welcome meeting in the hotel lounge, we were offered a “vicinity tour” consisting of nothing more than half mile from where were staying. Now remember, we had already seen Budapest and Vienna and various smaller places. We weren’t about to be amazed by the old buildings or the trams or the late night shoppers.

But what happens when they’re all there at once?

The city was just teeming with life. In fact if I have any impression of Prague it’s simply that the place is so very much alive.

We’re not the only ones to say this. There’s something about this city that simply hooks people. Some friends of ours got to live there for a year with their three kids. They returned last summer and now, having seen the place, I walked up to them individually at church on Sunday and asked, “How could you ever leave?” In one of the conversations I added, “There must have been tears;” and at that one of their daughters looked at me as if to be happy to find someone who gets it.

I get it. So does the guy we met on the tram on our last day. He came for a few weeks. He’s been there a few days. Work visa? “That’s something we don’t talk about on public transit;” he replied. I almost hope he gets to continue flying under the radar.

This trip was an extension of our river cruise — I’m not posting these impressions chronologically — that at one point in the three hour bus ride I started to question. Even the drive to the hotel and check in wasn’t particularly impressive.

But all that changed in about 30 seconds. If you get a chance to see this city, don’t pass it up. It’s alive!

July 16, 2017

We’re Back from Europe

We are back from eleven days in Europe

In the early days of my reading faith-focused blogs — approximately 2005 to 2009 — I was often disappointed to turn to some of my favorite writers only to learn they had taken the day to talk about their latest vacation. This occurred at a time when even an out-of-state (or province in our case) trip would have been impossible. Over the years there have been four significant factors preventing us from going anywhere. In order:

  • Raising children, including one who would have been considered special needs at the time.
  • My health; though we did take some road trips.
  • Economics, especially in the sense of affording air travel.
  • My parents health which perhaps wasn’t always as much a barrier as we thought, but certainly did require us to be in daily contact, which would have complicated an overseas holiday.

So when the opportunity to catch up arose, we selected a package which took us to Hungary, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. We also passed through Slovakia which I later got to visit more closely while Ruth took a different side trip.

I knew nothing of these countries prior to leaving and did not have time to do much research. I probably could have pointed to Germany on a map and said something about wiener schnitzel, polka music and beer. (For the record, I don’t remember hearing an accordion and my beer consumption consisted of splitting one with my wife on the last day of the trip.)

As familiar as sightseeing destinations are in Paris and England and Rome, the recent terrorist activity in the first two doesn’t lend itself to worry-free touring. (I’ll grant that Germany has not escaped such events.) So we chose this particular set of countries. They were different. They were unknown. They were a nine-hour flight away.

The trip was certainly eye-opening. As I sit typing this at 5:45 in the morning — my body confused by the six hour time difference — I am reminded particularly of our reaction the first day to the historical sections of Budapest on our first full day, and our first glimpse of the old town of Prague last Wednesday. It was surreal.

We were there. It wasn’t a movie set. We saw it. We felt the bricks. We walked on the cobblestones. We pinched ourselves a few times to make sure it wasn’t a dream.

In North America, generally speaking nothing old is older than the late 1700s. Our old buildings are mostly mid-to-late 1800s. In Europe, tour guides speak of a structure saying, “this was erected in the year 921” as casually as they are reminding you not to leave personal belongings on the bus. “…And the one on the left was built in the 1100s.”

Europe is also all about cathedrals. Our last tour director — the trip was in two stages — told us that many travelers reach a the ABC stage, meaning “Another bloody castle.” But they might also say, “Another bloody cathedral.” You know your brain is saturated when, knowing the ornateness and beauty that awaits inside, you pass by because you are simply cathedraled-out.

But it does offer the opportunity to consider a number of faith-focused things. Tomorrow we’ll look at the emergence of a new group of conservative Christians in Germany, and then move on to look at

  • The very not-seeker-sensitive synagogue district in Prague
  • Resenting the church’s wealth
  • Church funding in Germany
  • Meeting people who grew up Godless

and other topics as I think of them and go through our pictures.

So that’s the line-up for this week, plus hopefully a return of the link list on Wednesday.

If you don’t want to hear about someone’s holiday excursion when having one of your own seems remote right now, please understand I totally get that.



The Eugene Peterson Thing

On the last few days of our trip an interview Religion News’ Jonathan Merritt did with Eugene Peterson blew up into a major tempest and then within 24 hours, as quickly as it had begun, the gale subsided. We’ll obviously be focused on other things this week, but here’s a 7:00 AM Sunday morning update from Religion News in case you missed it:

  • Jonathan Merritt’s column was actually the third in a series of Q&As with the author. | Read the story
  • Merritt’s question to Peterson was by no means unfounded, especially given what he said in this 2014 video. | Read the story
  • Our summer intern Madeleine Buckley looked at other prominent Christians who’ve had a change of heart on LGBT issues. | Read the story
  • Commentator Jacob Lupfer says the controversy shows that Peterson is exactly where most non-mainline Christians are — “confused, conflicted, and torn between fidelity to beliefs … and compassion for people they know and love.” | Read the story

Note: I thought what Peterson said about engaging in hypotheticals in interviews like this was brilliant; it’s hard for a pastor to answer a question which begins if there was a gay couple and if they were Christians and if they asked you to marry them…

February 20, 2017

Two Worlds: The Cuba Caste System

poverty-in-veradero

Perhaps it’s not a caste system the way we normally use the phrase, but there was something eerie about the way two worlds seem to coexist in Cuba: The tourists and those who work in tourism.

In one resort at Varadero, a tunnel is used to get workers from the street into the basement level of the hotel. There were no doubt staff entrances at all of the 40-or-so resorts on the peninsula, but it was the tunnel that caught our eye.

Workers arrive by bus, not the air-conditioned ones known to the tourists, or even the double-decker versions, but older, hotter, more crowded ones.

For the non-tourists, there is also a different currency. We paid for things in CUCs, the convertible, tourist version of the Cuban Peso. Residents pay in CUPs. One Cuban Convertible Peso equals 24.728383 Cuban Pesos. Some stores accept the one, some accept the other, some accept both.

So we find ourselves in a country where there are two sets of currencies, two sets of buses, two types of taxicabs, etc…

…Another lifetime ago, I worked for a musician who played a number of Jewish venues including the banquet halls of major hotels as well as synagogues. It was customary to unload and load equipment through a service elevator or even through a kitchen. I am personally acquainted with what it means to be part of the service staff in a place where, on the other side of the wall, wealthy people are enjoying unlimited food, drink and entertainment.

There was something about this trip however where it reflected differently. I was, for seven short days, one of the rich tourists. As noted in yesterday’s article, for our tour guide to stay one week in this place, he would have to spend the equivalent of 19 months’ wages. As noted the day before, there is something unsettling at the fragility of the curtain which separated our tour guide from we tourists.

I say that not because I’m not wanting to associate with the waiters and chambermaids, but rather because I don’t want them to be invisible; don’t want them to have to be quietly ushered in through a tunnel…

…Last week in the Canadian parliament, a member stood up and mentioned in passing that before his government career he was a bus driver. And guess what reaction that got?

The members of the opposition party laughed at him.

I want to emulate the Nazarene who “humbled himself, taking on the role of a servant.” I want to be able to come alongside the waiter who is carrying too many plates, or grab the other corner of the bed-sheet while the maid makes up the room.

But the world doesn’t like it when those barriers are not firmly set in place.


Thanks for your indulgence during these 3 articles. There’s one more which will come a few days later, as I want to share our impressions in a tourist environment that is devoid of Americans and consider the potential of an influx of US tourists on Cuba.

February 19, 2017

Third World Exposure

havana-back-streetsI have been privileged to work in a variety of areas of ministry: For a local church, for a Christian book distributor, for a Christian music distributor, for a Christian book publisher, for two Christian camp ministries, for a Christian television ministry, for an international Bible distributor, as a teacher in a Christian school, for a local Christian newspaper, for two nationally distributed Christian magazines, for a Christian arts organization… well, you get the idea.

Always missing from my resumé was what I termed “third world missions exposure.” Essentially, I am a missions trip that never happened. I became aware of this at one of the camps I worked for:

The mission agency people knew very little about Christian camping or even youth ministry in general…but their third world exposure meant they had good organizational skills, an ability to adapt, and a variety of gifts. Overall, I think the kids who attended that year got their money’s worth from this diversity, even if things at the senior staff level were a constant tug of war…Parachuting people from other ministry disciplines into unfamiliar contexts is not always a great idea. I felt that within their own missions-and-development tribe, there were probably reasons to respect some of these people, not to mention their willingness to take on the camp challenge at the last minute.

As I mentioned yesterday, we finally had an opportunity to go to Cuba last week. Our first time on an airplane in 28 years. We debated whether as a nation, Cuba can be considered “third world.” My wife suggested “second world.” Political science is not my long-suit, but given Cuba’s ties to the former Soviet Union, it might fit the definition. These days however, the term describes economic status, not political alignment. Cuba is not undeveloped; their education system alone ought to be the envy of many western countries.

veradero-back-streets

Regardless, it was definitely my first direct exposure to poverty on a scale I never envisioned. Further, I never imagined how much it would affect me, seeing this now, at this stage of life. Would it have shaped my life differently to have this experience much younger? Perhaps, but in ways I will never know.

Posting a number of pictures to Facebook, my wife wrote:

When we got home, we calculated that for our tour guide to stay one week in this place, he would have to spend the equivalent of 19 months’ wages. Even the tour he hosted would be a months’ work.

I think knowing that helps me to appreciate the experience and to enjoy it more, while recognizing my privileged place and being humbled by it.

We are forever changed.

havana-downtown

 

 

February 18, 2017

Breaking the Fourth Wall

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:44 am

cardenas

It wasn’t exactly breaking the fourth wall as is usually defined, but it was a moment in our trip to Cuba where the wall between the lives of the villagers and the rich tourists on the air-conditioned bus was momentarily shattered.

Sitting on the bus weaving through a number of towns and villages was exactly what we wanted to see. “Today,” the tour guide intoned, “You will see the real Cuba.” It took me awhile to think about the implications of this: In other words, what you’re seeing in the tourist resorts is not the real Cuba. Actually both tour guides on both days used “the real Cuba” phrase.

Our guide the second day was more than willing to talk about every aspect of village life. What things costs. How the free university education system works. The age to vote. The parliamentary system. Asking us questions about how similar things transpire back home. Sitting at the front of the bus each time so that we had access to the tour guides was strategic on my part. It meant being able to engage in conversation and ask questions throughout the entire 9 hours (the village tour) or 11 hours (Havana).

In a very strange way, the tour guide was, in my mind at least, slowly becoming one of us. Speaking perfect English (in the first case) or both English and French (in the second case.) It was easy to forget that the well-dressed young man sitting one row in front of me holding a microphone was actually a member of the culture in one of the towns where stopped.

That is until…

I was looking around and not fully paying attention when he picked up the microphone and said, “My house is two blocks that way. You can all come for dinner; we’re having rice and eggs.”

It took a minute for that to sink in. I quietly whispered to my wife, “Did he just say…”

In that moment I was totally wrecked…

…When we got back to the hotel I told this story a few times to some other people we had met from Canada. But I couldn’t do it without breaking up.

It’s one thing to sit on a tour bus — the analogy we used a few times was of people traveling to Pennsylvania to look at the Amish — but it’s a whole other thing when you’ve spent several hours getting to know personally one of the people who is part of the tableau spreading out before you.

It wasn’t a particularly attractive neighborhood.* Not one you or I would choose. And for dinner that night, back at the resort, we would be eating far more than rice and eggs.

I’ll write more tomorrow about the impact the poverty had on me.


*We didn’t take a lot of pictures in that particular town. The one at the top is borrowed from a tourism site. It’s a contemporary image, not something out of a movie recreation. The image below is one we took in Havana. We’re 99% sure that’s someone’s home. She was talking on the phone up to a 30 seconds before we took the picture.

habana

May 16, 2015

My Life Growing Up in Europe

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:48 am

I did not grow up in Europe.

The topic last night was, “Imagine how your life would be different if you had grown up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.”

I passionately told my wife, “You would have lived in a different type of housing, eaten different foods, been exposed a greater variety of languages, gone through a very different school system.”

She smiled and continued watching her online murder mystery. In fairness, she had a long day at work. As for me, I could smell the different air, see the sun casting shadows at angles I’ve never experienced from trees that don’t grow here.

What prompted all this was I tuned in to Delicast.com last night and selected a radio station from the Netherlands, Toppers van Toen. They play music of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Maybe a little too middle-of-the-road for my liking. Not my version of the 60s or the 80s. Tomorrow night I’ll pick a different station.

Meanwhile, here’s what was going on as I listened:

03:43:52 Unit Gloria Our Father
03:41:04 FRIDA BOCCARA Cent Mille Chansons
03:38:02 Bee Gees First of May
03:33:23 Barry White Never Never Gonna Give Ya Up
03:31:04 Billy J Kramer & The Dakotas Bad To Me
03:28:42 Royal Guardsmen Snoopy Vs The Red Baron
03:25:36 Stevie Wonder You Are The Sunshine Of My Life
03:20:38 Whitney Houston Didn’t We Almost Have It All
03:14:54 Gerard Lenorman Voici Les Clés
03:11:15 Don McLean Vincent
03:07:37 Jose Feliciano Che Sara
03:04:45 Tina Charles Dance Little Lady Dance
03:01:34 Long John Baldry Let The Heartaches Begin
02:59:00 Dusty Springfield You Don’t Have To Say You Love
02:55:46 Golden Earings Dong Dong Diki Digi Dong
02:51:14 Rod Stewart Ain’t Love A Bitch
02:47:12 Tina Turner Two People
02:42:16 Classics Wings Of An Eagle
02:38:35 Move Blackberry Way
02:36:13 Luman Bob Let’s Think About Living
02:33:10 Chicory Tip Good Grief Christina
02:30:12 Four Tops Bernadette
02:27:48 The Hollies Listen To Me
02:23:42 Billy Ocean Suddenly
02:17:52 John Miles Music

No, I don’t know why Frida is in all caps.

For some of us, for whom travel is simply not an option, this is a way to immerse yourself in a foreign space; to at least mentally board that plane and enjoy that European vacation. But not a hotel holiday, or even a bus tour; but rather, an immersion into the life of a local village perhaps, or a one week stay at the house of a cousin you don’t have where you settle in to watch the hometown breakfast television show and comment how the electrical plugs are not like the ones back in the States.

…So yeah; about that first song; well, listen for yourself…

Now aren’t you glad you tuned in?

There are hundreds of stations on Delicast sortable by country or genre. I encourage you to take the trip.

You can be back home for dinner.

July 6, 2010

Possessions versus Experiences

Filed under: ministry — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 12:44 pm

I remember meeting someone years ago who basically didn’t own anything.  She put all her money into travel.  She wanted to see as much of the world as her moderate salary allowed.

Traveling through the northeastern United States this week, I am reminded of her philosophy.   Americans are the most resourceful, entrepreneurial people in the world, but they’ve put too much of their energy into manufactured goods, and not enough into manufactured experiences.

For every Macy and Gimbel; for every Kresge or Walton, there are few Disneys.   And where you do get people pretending to provide experience, the goal is simply to exploit.

I realize I’m now a thousand miles away from the usual focus of this blog, but let me continue.

Years ago we visited an indoor “amusement” center in the northwest suburbs of Chicago consisting of games that are played by loading up a credit card with value.   I like old-fashioned pinball games, so I went that direction, but not being familiar with their particular offerings, I watched helplessly as ball after ball disappeared between the flippers.   It wasn’t about loading up the card with 30 minutes or 60 minutes of value; it was about reducing the value of the card as quickly as possible.

If someone was truly trying to sell experiences, they would provide something that would allow every kid — and at least one adult — feeling that they were a winner.

We noticed in the Adirondack State Park in New York that there were limited experiences advertised to the casual visitor.   Only when we pushed it did we discover the possibility of renting a boat.   That little one hour rental in a decrepit row boat with a 5-horsepower motor was the highlight of my summer. But it almost didn’t happen.

It’s so much easier to give ones entrepreneurial skills to manufacturing or sales.   The park seemed somewhat unexploited unless you had a restaurant or a motel.   (Or two mini-golf places in Lake Placid.)

If you are in ministry, you may think that you are the vendor of a commodity called Christianity.   Rather, you should consider the possibility that you are the impresario or facilitator of an adventure called Christianity.

If you are in youth ministry, or if you are a parent, don’t give your teens “things.”  Give them experiences. Travel widely and travel close to home. Make the places they’ve been more important than the things that they own.

Finally, the park held many treasures that were unfortunately hidden.   Our swim in a gorge against a powerful current — the topic of a future blog post here I’m sure — only happened by a chance conversation.   There were no signposts advertising what was available.

If you are in ministry, Christian experiences shouldn’t all be happenstance or serendipitous.   There should be some signposts on the way indicating clearly what the objectives are and where the path is leading.

Do you think of leading people into relationship with Jesus as taking them on an adventure, or is it more like selling a commodity?

March 20, 2009

Final Post from the Road: God Is Workin’ It Out

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:07 pm

Well, we finally made it to a Christian bookstore (Family Christian), and a Barnes & Noble and our favorite, Big Lots.   Now we just need to find an Ollies store and our shopping will be complete.  (Ollies is a chain of liquidation stores in PA, OH and a few other places, I’ll add the link to this when I get back.)

We also had an amazing visit to a musical instrument dealership, Willis Music.  They have seven stores in three states and set a new standard for friendliness, product knowledge and overall service.

But alas, all good road trips must come to an end, and with our oldest at college next year, this may be our last Spring break together as a family.   (Sniff!)




Today’s Bonus Quotation:

Many years ago I heard a speaker at a minister’s conference point out, “While you’re trying to figure it all out, God is working it all out.” This simple statement has been a proven proverb in my own life many times over! May we rely on God’s grace today which enables us to be still and cease striving; to know deep within our being that He is God and that truly He is working it all out.

~ Stephen and Brooksyne Weber writing in Daily Encouragement

December 5, 2008

Truly Different Kinds of Churches

Filed under: Christianity, Church, Religion — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:24 pm

Check out this photo essay featuring 20 of the world’s most unusual churches, architecturally speaking.   (You might enjoy some of the other collections at this site, Village of Joy.)  The indication is that this is part one with more to follow.   Thanks to Trevin Wax for pointing this out.    Of course, today, the phrase “unusual church” usually refers to things other than building design.   Don’t believe me?   Try a Google search for the phrase, “a different kind of church.” Anyway, back to the photo collection, here’s a sample pic to give you the idea:

20-unusual-churches-p1-laslajas

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