The dark heart of Italy: seen through the lens of cultural sins

BACKGROUND: Every culture has unique and varied ways in which it displays both the glory/creativity of God and the depravity of mankind.  Living and working in Italy for many years has given me time to observe both in the Italian context.  Italy is a land of incredible contrasts: i.e. the stunning beauty of this scene in Sesto Calende and the darkness of the deception used in everyday Italian life without a second thought.

CONTEXT: I was in the process of changing home internet providers from Infostrada to Fastweb.

My cell phone rang: a number from Pisa that I didn’t recognize.  On an adventurous whim I took a risk and answered, “Pronto.” 

A lady responded, in Italian with an Eastern European accent, “Good morning, I’m calling from the Fastweb technical department regarding your request for fiber internet service with us.”

Curious, I replied, “Yes, go on.”

“We’ve come up against a technical limitation in your area and we simply don’t have another additional line available to activate your service,” she explained.

Skeptical, I asked, “Why would you allow me to sign up for and walk through the entire contract process if you didn’t have the sufficient resources available to activate the service?”

“With all the new activations, we simply underestimated demand in your area,” she clarified.  “However, we have an agreement with other carriers in the area who have available lines and we can get you online through TIM,” she offered.

What she was explaining didn’t add up from a technical perspective, as I previously had worked many years in the telecom industry in another life.  It made even less sense from a business perspective.

“So, you’re telling me that Fastweb is going to graciously offer to connect me to its biggest competitor—TIM—because it doesn’t have the resources to fulfill my request?” 

“That makes no sense at all,” I blurted.

Click.  The call disconnected.  It wasn’t a dropped call.  She had hung up on me.

It seems that a telemarketer from TIM had just impersonated an agent from Fastweb and tried to steal me as a customer using bold-faced lies.

I called Fastweb’s customer service directly and they confirmed it.  TIM, who owns the actual phone lines that all the companies use (like AT&T or Verizon in the USA), saw the service change request from Infostrada to Fastweb and used that privileged information to formulate a convincing story to steal my business.  Apparently, I’m not the only one to whom they’ve presented this scam…

I was dumbfounded.  I’m used to telemarketers bending the truth to sell, but prominent companies scamming consumers using impersonation and bold-faced lies?  This was surely a new low.  It’s another good reminder how much Italy needs the gospel message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

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A Tour of the New Church Building!

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A Picture Tour of the Inauguration!

Looking at the office from across the courtyard

Image 1 of 14

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Almost Here!

It’s crazy to think that 9 months have come and gone, and here we are two weeks away from Lucas Benjamin’s expected arrival! Many of you have generously asked how you might send us a gift to help as we transition into parenthood and life as a family of three. We are blessed that you would want to help us in this way! I have created a registry with Babies”R”Us which you can find by searching for our names here:

We have chosen only smaller items that we will be able to fit in our suitcase when we return to Italy in September. The Lord has blessed us already in providing for Lucas through Italian friends, Crossworld Italy missionaries, hand-me-downs and people who have come to visit during this past year from the US. We have been blown away at His continued provision through each of our supporters who so faithfully give month after month.

We are excitedly waiting for the birth of our son; it still feels weird saying that!   Even though I am experiencing a mix of emotions ranging from anxiety/fear of the unknown to joyful anticipation, the strongest emotion I feel is love for Lucas–already so strong and I haven’t even laid eyes on him! I really look forward to meeting him, holding him, and seeing how God chose to mix parts of me and parts of David together to create our little boy. I look forward to experiencing love in a whole new way and understanding God’s love more profoundly as we discover a new way to love.

I know pregnancy is different for every woman and for every child, but I am so thankful that this has been an easy and enjoyable time. Many of you have prayed for us throughout these months and I believe God has answered your (and our) prayers and will continue to do so in the future. I have been praying scripture from the Bible over him and asking God that one day Lucas may know Jesus Christ personally and live up to the name we gave him–bearer of light. This has been and will continue to be my biggest prayer request for him: that he would be a light for Christ in the darkness around him wherever he may go. However, my prayers aren’t all that deep and spiritual. Ha! I also ask God for things like a pain-free, quick labor, easy breast-feeding and for Lucas to sleep well from day one. I figure He can always say no but it sure doesn’t hurt to ask! At least it helps me remember that God is truly in control of all things and I can trust all things to Him.

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The Illusion of Safety

Have you ever wondered what motivates one man to fight in a war for his country and another to live in an apocalyptic bunker to prepare his family for doomsday?   Likewise, what motivates one person to isolate themselves from others or another who cannot stand to be alone?   In some way, shape, or form it seems that we all crave an aspect of the same essential thing: safety.   We’re not just talking about physical safety, either, as this goes so much deeper–to the core of who we are.

We crave safety in the physical, emotional, and spiritual realms–or at least some variant of the three.   Perhaps I shouldn’t try to generalize and speak for everyone else, but I’ll admit that I crave it.   For me, perhaps the most appealing element of safety is control.   I feel safe in a given realm of life when I can manipulate certain variables to my level of comfort.   If those variables go awry and I lose the capacity to regulate them–my sense of safety vanishes.

Each of us goes about trying to arrive at safety from different angles and thus it looks different from person to person and culture to culture.   Many want to know that the bases are covered, that our loved ones are protected, or that someone has our back.   A few just want to insulate themselves from pain and suffering.  While some may want to be safe by avoiding certain types of risk, still others want just the opposite–to be safe from a life of risk avoidance.   This pursuit often motivates our job choices, who we vote for, where we live, who we marry, our view of foreign policy, and so many other things.  It can even impede our availability to be used by the King.

Safety is an illusion.  If our study of the Word doesn’t make it clear enough, our own painful life experiences will.   In this life there is absolutely no promise of safety.   It is as elusive as happiness.   Ask even the richest and most powerful among men, in an honest moment, and they will admit the same.

Security in Christ is a reality.   While safety is no guarantee in this life, our security in the One who made us is assured for all eternity.   When we approach the Lord Jesus with the faith of a child, He becomes the guarantor par excellence of our security.   When we are hidden with Christ in God there is no possibility of being lost or forgotten.   When we are in the hands of the Father and the Son there is no chance of being plucked from their grip.   In the end, I would gladly trade the illusion of safety that the world promises for the reality of security that Jesus promises.

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The Sucker Shoots

Not many of us have a vineyard in our backyard or even within driving distance.   However, if the opportunity ever presents itself, take the time to stop for a visit to see all the vines and branches.   John 15 will come alive to you as never before!   Such was the case for Jana and me this past weekend…

We were invited by some friends to take part in the “vendemmia” which is the harvesting of the grapes after a year of painstaking labor so that they can be made into wine.   I couldn’t help but think of Jesus and the disciples likely passing endless rows in the local vineyards as they walked from Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper.   Despite the darkness of the night, there was no better time for the Master to fashion an agricultural metaphor.   Undoubtedly, the disciples caught the nuances of the vine and branches image given their agrarian society and the immediate context around them.

In our instant-gratification world, where agriculture makes us think more about a supermarket than a vineyard, Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and branches  doesn’t  hit home at first blush.   In fact, the concepts of abiding in the vine, pruning branches that they might bear more fruit, and the danger of sucker shoots only came to life for me in a tangible way after working in a vineyard myself!   Our Lord goes to great lengths to enable us to bear fruit in Him that the Father might be glorified.   However, are we ready for the pruning that is necessary to make that possible?

One of the many obstacles that the vinedresser must address to make his vineyard fruitful is the sucker shoot (see picture inset).   These sucker shoots are sprouts of growth on the vine that are fruitless, but nonetheless suck nutrients and energy away that would otherwise be used in the process of fruit bearing.   If the vinedresser fails to continually remove these sucker shoots, his vines will produce far less fruit.

What sucker shoots exist in our lives that are siphoning away energy and resources–crippling us from bearing fruit to the glory of the Father?   A dear pastor friend of mine skillfully described sucker shoots as: (1) things, activities, or people that cause us to become bored with God, (2) things, activities, or people that we turn to to fill us up when our soul is empty, and (3) things, activities, or people that cause us panic at the prospect of being removed.

May we let our perfect Father have His pruning way with all of the sucker shoots in our lives that we might bear much fruit to the glory of His name!

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No More Training Wheels

Do you remember the first few white-knuckled and adrenaline-charged minutes when you learned to ride a bike for the first time?   Can you recall the liberating blast of air in your face that tussled your hair and dried the winding rivers of sweat that had formed down your back?  After having raced around the neighborhood for so long with the condemning clackety-clack of the training wheels, it seemed like the apogee of freedom to glide effortlessly on two wheels.   However, you can probably also recollect the fears and responsibilities that came with the new freedom–learning to stop without crashing, negotiating busy intersections, and riding off-road.   I feel like the training wheels have come off, the adrenaline rush has come and gone, and now the rubber is really meeting the road.

I distinctly remember this feeling the first time that I led the little weekly bible study here in Sesto Calende.   This Saturday-night study is the precious beginnings of a church that our colleagues, the Lukers, have so faithfully shepherded.   After our initial time of fellowship, there was an awkward pause where I realized that everyone was waiting on me to open our prayer time and then launch into the study.  I’ve preached and led bible studies before in Italian, so this isn’t a new experience per se.   However, the weight of the fact that I was no longer at seminary, that there were no longer training wheels, and that these Italian believers were looking to me to lead, hit me like a load of bricks.

In some ways, I’m thankful for moments like these that remind me that I have absolutely nothing to offer anyone here save what the Living God gives me.   On the flip side, my flesh has never been fond of raw reminders that I’m nil–a nobody–without my new identity grounded in Him.   What an exquisite place to be, though–reminded continually of our inadequacies and utter necessity of His presence every moment of the day.   There is sweet freedom for me in knowing that if I don’t trust Him for help it won’t happen.   My prayer is that even as I become more comfortable with my ministry roles here, that I’ll never forget that He is the only one that keeps me from falling off the bike…

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Little Cars and Electric Mowers–Cultural Insights

One of the precious gifts that God has given us on the field is the opportunity to learn new ways to “do life” here in Italy.   This by no means suggests that we’ve gone Italian in every sense, but it has opened our eyes to see the merits of how Italians have adapted to the conditions of their environment and how we’d be wise to follow their example in a cornucopia of situations.   However, we likewise stubbornly resist and do things our way in some situations as well…

We  aren’t  tree-huggers by definition, but we believe in being wise stewards of God’s creation.   Folks here in Italy have to “go green” as a matter of survival.  We’ve  purchased all florescent light bulbs, bought super energy-efficient appliances, and sought to use gas instead of electricity to cook and heat because the power costs in Italy are about 4 times that of the US (more than $0.40 per kWh) because of taxes and transmission from France and Switzerland.   Likewise, everyone where we live must meticulously separate trash for recycling of plastic, glass, paper, and organic matter.   The refuse is placed in color-coded transparent bags so that if the trash collectors observe anything improperly sorted, they will either leave the entire bag or in some places issue a fine.

One area that we haven’t submitted to the “Italian way” is in the area of dress.   While we seek to not stick out as foreigners, we simply don’t have the budget nor the desire to try to match the Italian bravado in wearing pricey name-brands and/or wearing heavy clothes when it’s hot outside.   Often folks will wear clothes according to season with no regards for the actual weather outside.   It is not unusual to see people wearing jackets and long sleeves between seasons even when it is miserably hot.   There is also an inherent Italian fear of drafts of air–especially on the neck.   Many believe that these air drafts cause every measure of sickness, so they bundle themselves and their children to the hilt even when it  isn’t  warranted 🙂

I’ve had to sacrifice some of my so-called manliness on the throne of cross-cultural relevancy as well.   There was a time when I was in high school that I had a summer lawn-mowing business.   I had learned the tricks-of-the-trade to edge and mow like the pros!   I used powerful gas-powered equipment, charged an honest price, and picked up quite a few customers along the way.   I can also remember giggling at the occasional elderly gentleman I’d see out in his yard wearing shorts, a wife-beater undershirt, and dark dress socks; and, as if that  wasn’t  enough, he was also lugging around an extension cord, mowing with a dinky electric mower, and edging with a scrawny electric weed-eater.   Likewise, at about the same time and (im)maturity level in my life, I can remember poking fun at people who drove tiny sub-compact cars with one-liter engines…

Sweet irony would have it that in Italy I care for our little yard with a dinky electric mower and a scrawny electric weed-eater and I drive a sub-compact car with a one-liter engine.   By God’s grace, however, I still don’t ever go out in public wearing shorts, wife-beater undershirts, and dark dress socks!

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Bare Walls–Cultural Insights

Imagine that you and your spouse are finally at a place in life to move into your first home after only a few years of marriage and lots of anticipation. It’s actually just a rental, but it’ll be all yours! Think about the joy of actually moving-in following the search with a real-estate agent, administrative bureaucracy, and signing of the contract. However, there are a few caveats.

Your new kitchen has no appliances, no cabinets, and doesn’t even have a sink!   Your home has no light fixtures or ceiling fans and there are wires dangling out of the wall in the place where a fan or fixture would normally be located.   The walls of your new home are all white, but dirty with use in many places from the previous tenants.   Your bathrooms have the most basic porcelain fixtures but lack counters, cabinets, and a mirror.   You finally make your way to the bedrooms and are reminded that your new home has no closets or any built in storage of any sort.

As unusual as this scene might be to the North American reader, this is the everyday  reality of the starting condition of most purchased or rented apartments in Italy.   This is the exact place that we find ourselves with our newly rented abode.   Believe it or not, it does have its advantages.   You don’t have to deal with the stylistic or design choices of the previous owners/renters, as they took just about everything with them when they left.

While we are adjusting to what is normalcy here in Italy, we don’t feel at ease with this whole process as of yet.   In the span of a few weeks we’ve chosen paint colors and appliances, designed and ordered our kitchen, and are in the midst of furnishing the whole rest of our apartment from the ground up.   Not only have we been choosing the minute details of exactly what to put in our home, but we’ve been arranging and negotiating directly with all the various professionals who will do most of the installations for us.   Needless to say, it’s been a bit stressful for us.

The Lord has been our sustaining grace in this joyful yet stressful moving adventure.   We aren’t yet living in our apartment because there are simply too many missing pieces from the puzzle for it to support life as of yet.   We’ve had the blessing of being able to stay with family–Jason & Allyson Greenwich–and our colleagues in Sesto–Terrance & Hillary Luker–since leaving Bologna.  Most days, we just long to have all the dust settled and the freedom to move forward with life and ministry.   In the meantime, we simply entrust each detail in this thousand-piece-puzzle to our Sovereign and Omniscient Father.   This apartment will be our home, office, and place of ministry, but it is ultimately His to use as He desires according to His good pleasure…

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A Tribute to David Millet

Jana and I join with all of you gathered here to not only personally grieve the loss of our precious friend David Millet, but also to celebrate his life and entrance into the glorious presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.   We write you from the mission field in Western Europe where the Lord has sent us to serve among the vast majority of this continent that is lost without a personal relationship with Christ.   We are here in large measure because God used men like David Millet to stand in the gap and provide for us to get us here.

I first talked to David Millet in a 30 minute phone interview in 2005 when I was finishing up two years in Milan serving as a missionary to university students.   I was planning to attend Dallas Seminary that fall and I really needed a job to pay the bills.   Our dear mutual friend Pete Charpentier had just introduced us via email.   David, with his big heart and a recommendation from Pete, hired me sight unseen before I had even left Italy to come to Dallas.   Not only did David hire me to be his personal assistant at Millet the Printer, but he also gave me a place to live in his backhouse for my first 3 semesters of seminary–without cost!

Little did I know that my future boss would also become my very dear friend.   I watched and learned from David’s zealous commitment to always do right by his customers, his incredibly generous heart to support the Lord’s Kingdom work around the globe, and his commitment to serve and take care of his family.   David was the hands and feet of Christ to me and so many others over the years.   He ministered to me more than he ever knew.   We also all knew David to be a passionate promoter of even the simplest things that he loved–from his favorite restaurants to the latest dietary supplement that he was trying.

I am so grateful that David Millet believed in me and the plan God had for me.   My life has been forever changed by the impact of the six years that I was blessed to spend with him.   I will never go to places like Celebration Restaurant, Spiral Diner, and Dream Café without thinking fondly of David.   I thank God for the privilege it was to call David Millet my friend on this side of eternity and I cannot wait to be reunited with him in fellowship in the presence of our Lord Jesus in glory!

–David Showalter, Bologna, Italy

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