Sunday, December 21, 2014

Thoughts from Around the World

In Barcelona - a unique Nativity interpretation
I made some observations and captured some thoughts on my recent trip to Barcelona; Doha, Qatar; Tallinn, Estonia & Helsinki, Finland....throw in Frankfurt, Germany as the unplanned stop on the way home.
  • Airlines: U.S. based airlines, in my experience, are not the best. Lufthansa is a solid quality aircraft with consistent comfort & amenities; Aeroflot is definitely on the low end unless you want to go all the way to Carbint-air, a small airline in Haiti (I actually think they were shut down for drug smuggling) but they too fly an old Russian prop plane. The locals called is “Cari-bin-terror.” Qatar Airways took the prize on this trip. Comfortable, all the latest gadgets, “tinted” windows I’m pretty sure that can be “dimmed,” USB ports, etc….
  • Airports: Doha definitely takes the cake - it’s new, it’s expansive. The Tallinn airport is nice, quaint, clean. Munich was nice. Frankfurt - it’s big, old and ok. Chicago is Chicago. Stockholm was a very nice place. Everyone I spoke with was courteous and helpful no matter where I was. Regardless of the airport the prices are the same - ridiculous!
  • Food: There was lots of lamb in the places I visited. In Doha, Lebanese food is very popular and it was very good. The long, loaf of flat bread and the spreads were delicious! The Swedish meatballs and potatoes in the Stockholm airport were delicious - and way too expensive, but….
  • Tea: I drank a lot of tea, steering clear of sodas. The red tea in Doha was very nice, especially flavored with honey. I missed my usual Earl Grey until getting to Tallinn. My most expensive cup of tea was in Tallinn when I spilled the nicely prepared cup and so paid for another one! Oops!
  • Water: There are few if any drinking fountains in airports outside of the U.S. I was all prepared to fill up a water bottle but instead had to pay those exorbitant prices.
People: This is the topic that actually began my
Barcelona street
writing. I’ve traveled enough to know that we human beings are the same in more ways than we are different. This trip, perhaps because of the more extreme differences in cultures, I was struck even more by the similarities more than the differences that exist. People across the globe are in need of relationships. We want people to laugh with, cry with and spend time with. We want to know that someone else cares about us and that we can care about others.

At the Short Course Swimming World Championships in Doha, the similarities were paraded before our eyes. Women have to hug everyone after a medal ceremony. It takes twice as long for a women’s relay than a men’s ceremony. If your tradition is the cheek touch with the kiss in the air - some twice and a few three times - it adds to the length. But that’s the way it is everywhere. Women are more relational than men and that touch helps their connection to the world in which they live. Men are satisfied with a handshake or slap on the shoulder or butt and off they go. It’s the same around the world, with few cultural exceptions.

The divide is clearly visible for those who pay attention but I find it’s a political divide, not a human one. In Frankfurt (where I spent far more time than intended due to a generator failure on the first plane) I met a young lady from Vancouver. I was able to purchase her coffee and croissant at the Traditional German Bakery because her credit card wouldn’t work. She came over to me to say thank you, again, after eating her “most delicious” croissant ever! Her husband runs the Samsung Middle East operations from Tehran, where he lives most of the time and she is with him most months during the past 2 years. She feels welcomed. Most mistake her for a U.S. American and are excited to meet her. We agreed she just needed to insert more “eh’s” into her conversations to move that geographical identification to the north.

Politics and politicians divide us. They certainly have a job to do. The safety and economic prosperity of their respective nations, along with the posturing that often goes with it, creates divisions and difficulties that mean little to the average citizen of the world. 
Frankfurt, Germany

Frankfurt Christmas Market
We live in different cultures and follow different customs. Our societies are structured differently. Some of our values differ. In the U.S. we are more individualistic - although I’m told that Australia is the same and perhaps more by those who have visited. Most cities and towns lack the public transportation and tradition of walking that serves to isolate us. My sister-in-law and her husband live in a section of Portland that is more of a community - lots of walking, outdoor cafes, local shops. But most of our society isn't built that way.

In Barcelona or Tallinn I could walk to a grocery store in 5 minutes or to a bus, tram or metro station that would take me to where I wanted to go. Qatar was a bit different, being a society in which about 15% of the population is native Qatari. It was my observation, and I was also told, there is not much interaction between the populations. You have a working class from outside the country and then the leaders of businesses and the country. To run events, such as World Championships; or to manage construction projects for the 2022 World Cup, outside individuals and companies bring the expertise.

The American in-between my new Qatari friends
The Middle East thinks more about “us" than “me" - I think. Everything is about name and tribe, which is why we in the U.S. can’t quite comprehend all that is going on. My conversations in Qatar informed me there is always an ISIS here or there, gaining notoriety only because of the press. While this present insurrection appears to be particularly brutal, it’s not new, but seems to be part of the fabric. Our U.S. lenses bring a distortion to the reality. One Qatari said to me: “The U.S. is always in the middle of things and it never gets any better.”

The clothes are different, many times because the need is different, or from tradition. The food is different. Different drinks are available, barring some of those global brands. The cars are different but in Qatar the concentration of luxury vehicles is astounding. Never before had I seen a Rolls Royce dealer next to a Lamborghini store nearby a Ferrari place. 

The similarities are more than the differences, I believe. In each place, people work to provide for a family. Couples walk the decorated streets hand in hand or gaze at one another over a meal. Business meetings take place in a hotel lobby, in a restaurant or office and cell phones are ubiquitous. We all want the same things: meaningful relationships, someone to love and to love us and to make our way in this world.

Even Christmas connected us, although in Qatar it was quite different, save for the Egyptian glass-blower who made ornaments to cater to the tourists. Both Barcelona and Tallinn, in Helsinki as well as the airports, Christmas was in the air. Carols played, lights displayed, decorated trees all called to a season. Even in Qatar I received a magazine in my hotel room whose cover said I could find directions to the festive nature of this time of year inside.

I found a significant difference in the displays. Nativities are my favorite part of Christmas decorations. To the chagrin of my family, I like to place the wise men “afar” from the manger, often intruding upon my wife’s decoration schemes. So I was on the search for those unique ones in this part of the world. My first stop was easy. I knew I would find one in the Christmas market of Barcelona. Big figures and little ones, made from all different kinds of materials. I was disappointed in Helsinki, finding only the few church windows displaying a scene. Not one was to be found in the market or in a store. Tallinn, I thought, would not be an issue but I was surprised. A beautiful Christmas market and there was one booth with figures made in a Nordic style - and there was one Nativity displayed ‘neath the covered walk on one side of the old Town Hall.
Evangelical Free Church - Helsinki
Swedish speaking Methodist Church - Helsinki

Town Hall Display - Tallinn
Barcelona Nativity interpretation
Christmas around the world seems to be a commercial holiday more than anything else. It’s an opportunity to make a sale, to fill the emptiness of our hearts with the overflow in our storage units, closets and garages. I’ve been on a crusade for the past 11 years to do something about it with the Live Simply Project: live more simply so that others might simply live. Christmas is not about the presents as much as being present as Jesus to the least, lost and left-behind. It is my hope and prayer that this year you might find a way to reduce your consumption and increase your compassion. Merry Christmas!
Barcelona - Government Square

Sunday, December 14, 2014


The end of a journey has almost come. Which means the beginning of another is about to start. It all began and continues because I chose to say YES.

I used to be the guy who said no to opportunities. I'm remembering a previous European trip when I was 21, back in 1985. When in West Germany I remember turning down a chance to go to a West German Team water polo practice. In England, on the same trip, I turned down a chance to go to a Pub with new friends. I could run through a long list of "misses" (I hesitate to call them regrets because that's seems too harsh for the subject) because I chose to say no.....I'm too tired....I just don't feel like it....I'm a little nervous about what to expect, so "no, thank you" often came the reply.

Through the years I've tried to turn over a new leaf. To say yes (not as often as Jim Carrey in "Yes Man!") as often as possible. That approach has led me on some great adventures - like this one.

I am beyond privileged to be one of the FINA starters for USA Swimming, which basically opens the possibilities of officiating internationally. Many times I still think they got the wrong guy, but because I said yes to an invitation, I've experienced new things, met new people and been to some amazing places. This journey centered around Short Course World Championships in Doha, Qatar. I have been mentored by others who remind me to say yes, because an opportunity may never come around again. And you always approach a meet like like it could be your last, so do well, and say, "Yes." So I did.

"Yes" also look me on some detours both along the way and on the way home.

with Ellen in Barcelona
First was to Barcelona where I stayed with new friends David & Ellen. They are church planters with a special affinity for sports ministry; Ellen, in particular, with aquatics. After a proper Thanksgiving dinner on Thanksgiving Day (Ellen is from the U.S.), which included pumpkin pie (the can of filling was my dinner contribution), there was a lot of discussion as we walked, talked, ate and prayed about what God might want to do next in the arena of aquatics.

Do you want to try this food? Yes. Do you want to go to this place? Yes. Yes, yes and yes again.

Then Doha. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have an opportunity to visit this deep into the Middle East. The invitation to Qatar (there seem to be a hundred ways to pronounce it but the locals say "Ku'-tar" with the emphasis more on the first syllable) was a no-brainer. YES! As a result I met people from around the world, brought together by our love for the sport of pool swimming; I had one of the best seats in the house to watch some of the best swimmers in the world; and the opportunity to work with referees from Ukraine and Nigeria, through whom I learned more about the role of the starter and the team we make with the referee.

In Doha I said YES a lot. Yes, I'll try that Lebanese food. Yes, I'll go to the Souq Waqif (the standing market) one more time. Yes, I'll do that, if it would be helpful for the meet. Yes, yes and another yes.

On the way home I stopped in Estonia to teach a couple of classes at the Baltic Methodist Seminary. If you look at a map, Estonia isn't "exactly" on the way home, but I figured it was more in the neighborhood that if I was at home.

It happened because I said, "Yes."

One of my classes in Tallinn
I was privileged to teach a group of Pastors and lay people, those whom are on the front lines pressing forward to take ground for the Kingdom. They were young and older, speaking Estonian, Russian and sometimes English. They taught me so much, asked many challenging questions and they say I helped them with their personal spiritual growth and with ministry.

I've been able to extend friendships with several Estonians and was privileged to eat in the home of Tarmo & Lii, along with their son Kaarel, who is a runner at Biola University in California. I've met new people, significant leaders of Methodism here in Europe - Taavi Hollman, Superintendent of this area - Dr. Ullas Tankler, Executive Secretary for Europe, Middle East and North Africa for the General Board of Global Ministries. 

"Yes" opens doors. When I say yes I meet new people. I experience new things. "No," closes doors. "Yes" opens possibilities.

2 Corinthians 1:20 tells us: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ."

Nativity from The Rock Church - Helsinki
The word "Yes" is God's word. All of His promises are fulfilled in Jesus. He is the confirmation and seal of God's promises to us. That's the celebration of Christmas. Can streams be made to flow in the desert? Yes. Can darkness become light? Yes. Will trouble and hardship really not overcome us? Yes. Can I know and live out my purpose in life? Was I created with a purpose? Yes. Christmas is the realization that all of God's planning is happening. It is YES!

Say Yes today. To Jesus. To life. The wonders will never cease. I'm grateful to the people who gave me the opportunity to say it - "YES!"

Second only to the YES of God is the YES of a wonderful woman who awaits my return. Can't wait to be home. Thanks for saying, "Yes."

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Anticipation Disappointment

In Rock Church - Helsinki, Finland
 During this time of year, much of the world drips with anticipation. Many, but not all, look forward to friends and family, time away from school, presents and food, traveling. We anticipate situations involving family that, well, we just don't seem to get along with. If we're honest, we might not like them. But they're family. This is not the kind of thing we like to anticipate.

I've been a whirlwind journey these past 2 weeks with another 5 days to go. I've been to Barcelona where Christmas festivities were in full bloom with bright lights and songs filling the air. What I was looking for were some unique, indigenous gifts to share with my family. I wanted a nativity scene, for instance, because I love them. My family thinks I'm obsessed - and I might be. I enjoy placing the wise men coming "from afar" because it's Biblically accurate and my family just shakes their heads as my wife moves them back because they mess up her decorating scheme.

In Barcelona I found plenty to choose from, different styles and sizes. It's a religious city with a religious history. I was not disappointed.

Next I found myself in Doha, Qatar for the Winter World Swimming Championships. I didn't expect to find any nativity scenes there! I did, however, happen upon some Christmas ornaments. It was an interesting contrast to be in a Muslim country where a displayed cross or Bible might be frowned upon (perhaps severely) but they know tourists. I was not disappointed but rather pleasantly surprised.

Today I find myself in Tallinn, Estonia to teach at the Baltic Methodist Seminary. I came with anticipation to see good friends, to feed my gift for teaching and to find some of those unique Christmas gifts, and yes, a nativity set.

Methodist Church in Helsinki
Yesterday, my friends took me to Helsinki, Finland by ferry, an easy 2 hour 45 minute trip across the Baltic Sea. Anticipation once again of a new land and my quest.

In Helsinki I found two nativities. Not two styles or sizes but just two and they were not for sale. Both were displayed in church windows (the churches are part of the block of buildings, often with shops underneath, down a step or two, and next to anything from a coffee shop to a hair salon to apartments). I tried to buy one and she laughed at me! I assured her my wife would love it. But that didn't help.
Evangelical Free Church in Helsinki

In Tallinn's Old Town I found one nativity for sale, available with different figures from wise men to donkeys and lambs along with Mary, Joseph & Baby Jesus. One booth out of dozens had it. Just one.

I'm here to teach two classes, the first on Evangelism & Discipleship. In talking with my Estonian friends over the recent months as well as from my own reading, I knew this country to be one of the most secular in Europe. The population has little to no memory of the Church. There is no song or hymn in their hearts. The decades of Russian occupation and oppression were aggressive in limiting such options.

I mentioned my deflated anticipation in class today. I asked: "How many nativity sets do you think I found in Helsinki? In Tallinn?" It shouldn't have surprised us, but it did. For a country that is secular in its orientation, where the church is a sidelight for the majority of the community, the central meaning of Christmas has been lost. It's about decorating trees (so there are many ornaments for sale) and giving gifts (so there are many woolen goods displayed), drinking special drinks and eating special food. So of course Jesus, the nativity, isn't relevant.

 In Methodist Church - Helsinki
Craft shop in Helsinki
In Helsinki is a Methodist Pastor who is seeking to make a difference by making some connections. She calls her craft shop a "first step" into the Church. It is located underneath the church, down two steps from the sidewalk. There we found a group of ladies anticipating class but first eating biscuits and drinking tea and coffee. The classes are taught by a Christian woman from Estonia (she's the one who laughed at my attempt to buy the nativity) using ceremics and fabric as the mediums. Prayer is said. Scripture is read. Skills are taught. Projects are made. The participants aren't "in" the Church yet, but they've taken a "first step."

When all we have to anticipate are presents and trees, lights and food, which are all gone after Christmas, boxed up for another year, what a disappointment it will be. There is so much more. The celebration of the coming of God in Jesus is but a prelude to His coming again in final victory. The first advent anticipates the second advent.

What keeps Jesus central for you at Christmas? Perhaps He is not and so I would ask, would you consider what He is all about?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Synchronistic Christianity

The Sagrada Familia is simply stunning. A remarkable feat of architecture and what could have been gaudy being littered with carvings, statues and scenes was made a piece of beauty by Gaudi who began the project in 1882. The Nativity entrance tells the whole story of the incarnation while at the newest entrance you can follow the Gospel from the Upper Room, to the betrayal, to the crucifixion and the resurrection.

As I took in the expanse and the detail I noticed something that seemed out of place in such a holy story. At the base of two columns marking an entrance are turtles, one under each. I don’t recall a tortoise being prominent in either the birth or resurrection dramas.

The myth of the giant tortoise comes to us from a variety of sources, with many cultures having a story that the whole world is supported on the shell of a tortoise. But why is it here? Why put the tortoise in a mythological position of prominence at the entrance to a place of Christian worship?

Over 35 years of following Christ, I have stumbled upon a number of non-Christian elements that are held up with core Biblical beliefs. It’s called synchronistic Christianity or synchronism, the combining of pagan elements with Christianity to form something that isn’t either.

In the Bible we read in Galatians that Paul is arguing against this kind of infiltration. There were a group called Judaizers teaching that converts to Christianity needed to become Jews first in order to become Christians. First obey the Law of Moses, then accept the grace of Jesus. They’re approach may seem innocent enough to many. But where does it lead?

I was talking with David & Ellen about this, crafting the post through our conversation and thoughts. They referred me to a book called “Pagan Christianity?” which deals with some of the pagan rituals that have crept into Christian worship and theology over time. They found it a transformational and challenging book. (Regardless of your thoughts on the scholarship of the book, it does help spark the mind to consider what is really in the Bible and what is not).

If I believe that saying: “In the Name of Jesus” at the end of a prayer is required for the prayer to be a prayer, then I am probably allowing magic to infiltrate my practical theology. The Scripture does say that “if you ask anything in My Name, it will be done for you.” But it’s not the phrase itself that is somehow magical; for if prayer comes from a self-centered heart that wants a thing to benefit the flesh, then saying “in the Name of Jesus” isn’t going to transform the prayer because it does nothing for the heart.

How many times have you said - I know I have - something that finds its basis in karma? Playing racquetball, when we can’t determine whether a low shot was good or not, we’ll play the point over. If the person making the first shot wins the point we say: “It must have been good.” Karma. When a parking space opens up or all the lights are green instead of red, we might say: “I must be living right.”

In the U.S. we often equate the blessings of God with the American Dream. If I can buy a house, have two cars, go out to eat often and have nice vacations, then God has blessed me. And God certainly isn’t a North American, yet we often put our U.S. culture right up there with what is Biblically correct. The creep of culture into Christianity is subtle and strong.

In Barcelona Catholic Churches there is usually a black virgin as one of the icons or statues. She is
revered most especially in this city. Centuries ago the original statue was taken to be cleaned and it was found her face was simply dirty, not black. Today she remains black because that has been the tradition.

Is something like the tortoise simply cute, a harmless depiction of the myth? Is it ok to pull in fun, minor elements, setting them alongside Christ? Santa Claus is a happy thing, is he not? The Easter bunny is just a cute bunny, and the eggs, well, they’re just eggs connected to a rabbit that doesn’t lay eggs. Nobody really believes in the Easter bunny. It’s harmless, silly fun. Right?

The Galatian Judaizers were saying that Jesus wasn’t enough. Something more had to be added, in this case Moses. Moses would complete the work of Jesus. Silly to Biblically literate people. But lest we are too quick to dismiss the creep in our own lives, we would be well to consider the formula: “Jesus + ?? = Salvation.” Hymns led by an organ? Pews versus chairs? A certain time of prayer each day? A particular method of worship versus another?

Suddenly, Jesus + my personal preference = salvation and we’ve slid into the pit with the Judaizers. 

It is my opinion that allowing the creep of myth and culture into Christianity weakens our faith and lessens the understanding of how much we need Jesus. My question is, can we ever get rid of all the things that have crept in? I’m not sure. Things probably vary from local church to local church, from person to person (like insisting it's more spiritual to pray at a certain time and so the form begins to be worshipped more than God Himself).

The turtle made me think. What about you?