The Trip to and from Europe
Many have asked how the trip to Hungary was and if I can tell them what about it. Well, we left for Vienna, Austria on July 23rd and arrived on July 24th in the morning. The flight to Chicago was good, but once we got off the plane we were in chaos mode. We had to leave the domestic terminal and take the “L” to the International terminal, which meant we had to process through security again. It slowed us down a bit, but we made it on time to get on our flight to Vienna. If you have to fly to Austria I highly recommend Austrian Airlines. We were treated with excellence, the service was outstanding and the flight was very comfortable. Maybe that’s why Jonny had a great time. Not bad for it being his first time to fly, huh? The flights back were good, but we left Vienna 1 ½ hours late and got on our flight to DFW at the last minute, but let’s not re-live that episode. Let’s talk about the experience and start with Vienna, Austria.
Ah, Vienna. Our first day in Europe was really one of getting our bearings and trying not to overdo our activity because I was still recovering from gallbladder surgery. It was the first time Paige and Jonny had ever been to Europe, and it wasn’t too bad that we stayed at a Hilton. Okay, don’t be fooled by the name. It was a nice hotel, but not what I would call a 4 star hotel. I got a good rate on priceline.com and had to take it. Honestly, it was a nice hotel with a nice view of the Danube River. While in Vienna we hung out at the Stadion Center (a nice mall close to the hotel). It’s called the Stadion Center because it’s down the street from the massive futbol (soccer) stadium where the EuroCup 2008 was held. We enjoyed some food and time to relax. We did get to walk around by the hotel and see the swiftly moving Danube River. It was a beautiful day as we soaked in the Austrian scenery.
On July 25th we enjoyed the mall again and hung out to inhale the relaxed atmosphere. We did some shopping and my beautiful bride bought some nice clothes. She also talked me into buying a very cool and European jacket. The price was unbeatable…I’ll definitely wear it during the winter. Later in the day we took a shuttle bus to Sopron, Hungary to serve at the Connect 2008 conference held by Christian Associates International. The trip to Sopron was uneventful, but I was excited to finally get to the place we had been called to serve. For those who don’t know, the conference is held to bring all the team leaders from Europe and their teams together to be encouraged and refueled.
On the way back we spent the night at the Airport Eurohotel. It was like staying at a Motel 6 with no air conditioning. We did get to ride the tram into the center of Vienna and enjoyed the European culture and architecture. Jonny was obsessed with eating Italian food in Europe so I wasn’t going to disagree. We had some of the best Italian pasta dishes and washed it down with a very good German Schöfferhofer Hefeweizen beer. Well, I had the beer, Paige had the water and Jonny had the Sprite.
The Conference and The Heart
We served and worked very hard to make sure the behind-the-scenes stuff got done at the conference. It was really fun, but that’s not what made the time in Sopron a wonderful time. I was blown away by the stories shared by the missionaries living in the many parts of Europe. Hearing the stories of lives being transformed from Scotland to Russia was very humbling. Being in the presence of those whom God had chosen to engage the diverse postmodern and emerging cultures of Europe was very encouraging.
Seeing Europe in the faces of the many ministry teams was like seeing Europe through the eyes of God. It was as though God had allowed me to see His hope and desire for Europe, and to also see how that impacts us in the U.S. as a society and the Western Church as an instrument in God’s hand. There are so many things still stirring in my heart which are for me specifically, but the thing to share with you is that we need not complicate nor confuse the issue of “being” the Church and making an impact for the kingdom of God. For instance, I’ve had great concern for the spiritual condition of the Western Church, and rightly so, but God wants me to also be concerned with His kingdom because the Church impacts His kingdom. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (NIV).
Another passage that ties into all this is Matthew 22:36-40. The passage states,
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The issue here is that we have taken a religious approach to doing church when in reality we need to take a missional-incarnational approach of being the Church in order to impact the kingdom of God. What do I mean by missional? In his book, The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch states:
Missional church is a community of God’s people that defines itself, and organizes its life around, its real purpose of being an agent of God’s mission to the world. In other words, the church’s true and authentic organizing principle is mission. When the church is in mission, it is the true church. The church itself is not only a product of that mission but is obligated and destined to extend it by whatever means possible. The mission of God flows directly through every believer and every community of faith that adheres to Jesus. To obstruct this is to block God’s purposes in and through his people. [p.82]
Alan also states in The Forgotten Ways website, “If ‘missional’ means being thrust into the world as witnesses to the redemption that is in Jesus, then ‘incarnational’ shows us that we ought to engage the world in the same way that God did in and through the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus the Messiah. We must go into the world to reach people, but we ought to stay and abide in order to communicate the Gospel relationally and meaningfully in any given context. Mission always sets our Agenda and Incarnation must always describe our Way.”
The Church is important, but not more important than the mission of God, which is to love people into God’s kingdom for their redemption. Think about it, when our focus is to Love God and others we don’t have to worry about anything else. Why not? Because we are seeking the things that matter to God and those are the things of the kingdom. The people that are lost, broken and pushed to the margins of society are the souls that God would have us engage in conversation and serve through our actions. I realize I’m expressing a simple approach and the reality of life is very complex and chaotic. This is not an attempt to trivialize the life we live, but more of a challenge to revisit the life that Christ lived as our example as he ushered in the concept of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom that weaves itself into the fabric of our physical reality.
I believe we have made the same mistake that the early Jews made concerning this man named Jesus. They were looking for a Messiah who would begin a revolution to overturn the existing governments and religious institutions. We seem to be doing the same thing. Our hope has been that Jesus would manifest himself in our political, religious and world leaders so that they would introduce ways for legislating morality. I’m not saying we should accept, allow or excuse ungodly behavior. I am saying that it is the Church’s responsibility to introduce into culture the matters of the kingdom and continue the revolution of discipling cultures…not overturning governments. We need to live as Christ-followers so that Christ can overturn hearts and revolutionize our spiritual existence.
As I look back at the many ministries that exist through Christian Associates International it encourages me that the teams are integrating themselves into the communities and cultures where they live. They don’t arrive in cities claiming to have the answers, or to change people. That is the Spirit’s work to do. These missionaries are not the typical denominational missionaries with a cookie cutter approach to “reaching the lost.” These are the grassroots people who are planting the seeds of faith in their communities through relationships. They are pouring out the new wine from their new wineskins. These are the warriors who are in the midst of a spiritual battle over the souls of people who need the redemptive grace of God.
I keep thinking of something Debra Hirsch (Alan’s bride) said at the conference. She told the story of a wonderful Baptist pastor in Australia who had made an impact on her life. This pastor was leading a workshop where he asked the attendees, “What do you see when you see people?” The predominant answer was that they saw sinners. Were they wrong? No. Their answer was correct; however, the pastor challenged their thinking by offering a new perspective. He said they might consider the idea that people are God’s creation. In essence, God thought of us and knew us before we were sinners. God knows us as his special beings in His vast Creation. If we could view the sea of humanity with this perspective it would change the way we approach people and their cultures. The lost souls of humanity are an amazing creation of God’s imagination. What God wants is for all of Creation to be redeemed and reconciled to him. He has already provided the way through Christ’s death and resurrection. We just need to speak the narrative of that truth into the culture.
So, for those who know me, this dialogue is nothing new. The Connect conference was very refreshing, confirming and affirming to my soul. We spent some time conversing with and listening to Debra and Alan Hirsch. They are the most amazing couple I’ve met in a long time. They have such a passion for the Church and God’s kingdom, as well as the people in the margins. To gain a better appreciation for the Hirsches I recommend reading The Shaping of Things to Come and The Forgotten Ways. Now, while listening to their discussion on Living Missionally God reminded me that my life is not my own, but rather it truly is His. My desire to engage the people of Europe and the emerging generation in America is real and from God. I know He will use me to fulfill that desire, but it will be His way and in His time.
As for Sopron, Hungary and Vienna, Austria, they are both very beautiful cities in their own right. Europe is where culture has happened for hundreds of years. Whether it is fashion, music, art or philosophy it is Europe where these things happen best and sometimes first. These things influence American culture in their own way. Some would argue that it is the other way around, but that is more in the areas of business and economic development.
What I have discovered is that we (America) have worked hard to introduce democracy and a global economy into much of the world. Yet, we have lagged in our ability to become global in our thinking…economically and spiritually. The countries we have helped develop are moving forward at a fast pace. It’s like the student surpassing the teacher. The issue here is that we have done well to introduce democracy and globalism, but we’ve done a poor job as Western believers to introduce a loving and relevant Christ to those same people. Sure, we’ve sent many missionaries into the farthest points of the world and some have been successful. Folks like Hudson Taylor, John Birch and Lottie Moon all made their way to China and God used them to change lives because they became like the Chinese and didn’t preach an American Gospel. Yet, I’ve read stories from the converts abroad saying they were glad we taught them how to “come to Christ,” but not always engaging their culture to show them how to “grow in our faith in Christ.” As far as Europe goes, we’ve been hesitant to engage and challenge postmodern culture and thinking. While Europe is moving past the philosophical musings of postmodernism, we in the U.S. are just getting serious about postmodernism’s invasion into the fabric of our thinking and faith. It’s like religious leaders are either in denial about the influence, or they are shocked that it is even influencing the thinking of their congregation members.
It is for this reason that Christian Associates International needs our prayer and support. They have taken on the cause of Christ to engage and influence the thinking of European people. They truly understand the “go” that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 28. This, when you think about it, is a tough thing to do. As a matter of fact, there are places in Europe that are so spiritually dark and heavy it is hard to imagine light breaking through. Yet, there is hope and grace and mercy and peace and redemption and so on.
This reminds me of Exodus 20:20-21 (NIV) where the Israelites are telling Moses they don’t want God speaking to them because they are afraid they might die. Instead they want Moses to speak to them of whatever God has to say. In verse 20 Moses tells the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” And then in verse 21 we see that the people were too afraid so they kept a good distance from the dark cloud that led them. What really fascinates me is that “Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.”
Aren’t we like the Israelites? They feared going into the dark place, not because they feared God, but because they feared dying. If they had feared God with the respect and reverence he deserves then they would not need to fear or worry about dying. Moses reminded them that it was a test and if they feared God it would keep them from sinning. Many of us know that in Romans 6:23 it says, “Sin pays off with death. But God’s gift is eternal life given by Jesus Christ our Lord” (CEV). We also know that Lucifer selfishly reconstructed God’s words by telling Eve “surely you will not die.” Why is it that this all matters? Well, postmodern thinking questions the relevance of absolute truth, but most importantly it questions the reality of God. The truth is that the price of sin is death…spiritual and physical. In the end postmodernism is not so much about the question of absolute truth as much as it is about questioning an absolute love that the human mind struggles to understand and that the Church has not lived effectively.
I close with these rhetorical questions. Are you willing to walk into the darkness where God exists? Are you willing to go into the dark places where the marginalized live? Or is your life one that is consumed with the status quo of a comfortable life?
Don’t worry it’s difficult for me to answer these questions as well. Much of my difficulty has to do with my own fears and failures. However, I do desire to follow Christ with total abandon. The reality of life is that I too have to face my fears and either be controlled by them or overcome them.
So to finally close this I say that the trip to Hungary was incredibly amazing. God took me to the woodshed and had “the talk” with me about my life, my heart and my purpose. I can’t speak much about that right now, because there are things I need to work through. Do know this; my heart has not been the same since the trip. It’s all for the better, but the crucible is not without pain.
On the journey…Gibby