I wrote parts of this post two years ago after visiting Rome and having a profound spiritual experience. For matters I didn’t fully understand other than it felt too vulnerable, I never posted it. Last week I picked it back up to include the present stirrings in my heart around the church’s broad response to Covid-19, which ranges from suing states (ex. here in California), continuing to ignore social distancing mandates by gathering (just google that one), or conversely, actually following the Biblical scripture which very specifically says to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1-2) and encouraging their congregations to do the same. But, I hadn’t pushed the publish button because if I’m honest, I’ve been too angry at the first two responses of Christians so my words felt similar to Jesus’s communication after throwing over the tables when the Pharisees misused the temple for their own monetary gains, which doesn’t capture what I’ve wanted to invite – which is loving your neighbor. This approach shifted after attending yesterday’s online church which affirmed to me the calling of my heart. To paraphrase the words of Pastor Daniel Long, “what if during this pandemic we are being called into love – more deeply loving the world and our neighbor.” And then both he and our good friend, Steve Porter, quoted a favorite poem, “Pry Me off Dead Center” by Ted Loder in different recorded parts of the session without knowing it. And, as if that wasn’t confirmation enough that I needed to move forward and publish this post, my mentor, Beth Brokaw, who was always, and I mean always, telling me to blog more, spoke to me from heaven as we ended the service with “Bless the Lord,” her life theme song after she navigated a stage four breast cancer diagnosis before dying six years ago this June. So here it goes…
Rome was the last place on earth I, or anyone else who really knows me, would’ve expected me to feel at home. We arrived via train from Florence (which we loved – who doesn’t?) mid afternoon without having much of an idea where to go. Like any unprepared American, we made our way through the thick zig zagging crowds to the desk with the universal ? mark in orange, or maybe red, at the main platform and in our broken Italian, asked if anyone spoke English. Not really though with perseverance on all our parts, we got answers. As we turned to leave, the gentlemen came around the desk and proceeded to tell us all the ways we needed to protect our 10-year-old blonde, blue-eyed son from kidnappers on the subways/buses. He play-acted – moving our bodies this way and that to show us exactly what we needed to do – keep ourselves between the door and our son. He apologized while delivering the information but stated in his broken English, “You need to know this. Keep him safe.” I hadn’t realized how unsafe I felt until my body, taking now a deep breath, relaxed because he’d offered me information that equipped me to actually keep my son safe. I was a stranger. Him – a generous man offering his time and knowledge.
And so we were ushered in to Rome. Over the next two days, God showed up in unlikely ways – two unexpected meetings on two different days with our daughter with whom we’d had no contact with her or her choir tour and randomly saw her – not once but twice. Unexplainable and probability of it happening randomly – infinite, especially given it was St. Peter’s Day – the second largest visitation weekend of the year in Rome. But that’s a story for another day.
The spirituality in Rome is indescribable to someone who really doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I was only there for four days but my tour guides and their knowledge of history and their way of being with others, along with their commitment to leave no proverbial footprint on the earth was inspiring. There wasn’t an ounce of impatience over “those tourists” though the crowds were thick. I felt joy from them over getting to educate about their heritage. Rome has survived whether rich or poor. It felt to me there wasn’t a division between believing and unbelieving, religious or pagan. Maybe it was the awe felt by the places of worship like the Vatican, the Pantheon, and other less known churches. It was more about my own experience of being in the place Paul walked and if I’d been alone in different parts of the city I would’ve wept – for the persecution of Christians, for the poverty over centuries, for the broken humanity that’s lived in this very ancient city, for Paul’s journey in Rome, for the early church and their acts of obedience, for many things that seemed to be so deeply grounded here and couldn’t be ignored. For example, when I looked at the Colosseum, I couldn’t ignore that Christians and other victims were killed by the thousands for entertainment. And the ancient awe of a city with real centuries of roots, left me both wordless and sickened because we’ve robbed our Native Americans from such an experience of the land our colonists took from them. Centuries of life between them and their land before our European take-over – destroyed by our ideas of progress. I’d say they’re waiting for the richness to arrive again. And if God is a lover of anyone, it’s the poor. My longing is that they may once again have a seat at the table in America, while I’m alive to witness it.
But I digress – Rome. Other highlights: gelato – in a cone, wine at any meal, “everyone’s welcome here” embodied throughout in the people. While eating near the Vatican, my husband mentioned his grandmother’s family is from Naples. Given his Italian looks I imagine his words were believable because the chef, the actual chef, delivered to us a free dish shouting as Italians do, for your Italian grandmother! Of course, not everything was roses – we had rude taxi drivers who pretended not to know where major museums were because it was a short ride or eye rolls from locals when we failed to weigh food properly. But I’ve learned to hold complexity -to not be disgusted by the utter beauty of the Vatican because of the very real abuse, that’s destroyed lives and continues to do so, in the Catholic Church. To know it’s complicated -not the abuse, there’s nothing complicated about that but to know its a broken system with broken humans running it and it also does an incredible job feeding the hungry, taking care of the widow, supporting those forgotten – there are approximately 8,000 homeless in Rome compared to LA County’s 15,000. Adriana, on of our tour guides, went into great details about the ways the Catholic Church supports Italians who cannot support themselves. Proof once again, that humanity needs God, needs his sanctifying power while at the same time needing real people.
If we doubt our need to hold complexity, we only need to read about John the Baptist who does nothing but serve God, even leaping in Elizabeth’s womb when a pregnant Mary was close, his death comes in the form of a ridiculous beheading – that’s some serious complexity. Yet, here in America I find many messages are far from complex – oversimplifying the work of Satan or sin without confronting individuals’s lack of sanctification or poor character in their lives. Further, church leadership (please read elders, deacons, etc. not simply the pastor) lack discipling members or confronting their own brokenness over issues such as simplifying sexuality and ignoring the massive pornography problems as well as the bashing of people with same sex attraction. Where is the love of our neighbor there? How can the church be like a light on a hill when it’s full of judgment and divisiveness. The us/ them mentality runs deep, even among denominations.
But my experience in Rome was a “everyone’s welcome. Come to the table.” Every person had a seat. I’m sure I’m romanticizing my experience but the friendliness of the people was remarkable. They embodied Jesus’s – “come as you are!” “Here – we love where you’re family’s from let us bless you!” “You have no shoes – come in anyways!” I didn’t experience an underbelly of pride, which can give from a superior place and dismiss anything the receiver has to give. In Rome, I never felt I needed to be more Italian than I was – which is zero percent. I haven’t an ounce of Italian in me and I speak it horribly, but enthusiastically to the embarrassment of my children. Yet, not once did I feel unwelcome or as if I couldn’t contribute to a story or an experience. (the trick – gesture bigger and talk even louder.) It reminded me of the prostitute wiping Jesus’ feet with her perfume and while his host wanted to whisk her away, he received her – he embraced what she gave him and commented to Simon about what a gift it was to receive. I think we can read his words, “you are forgiven” with a superior tone but what if he, like the Italians, gave forgiveness like the free dish from a place of receiving her love (us offering our heritage) and offering her his love through forgiveness. What if there was an equality relationally in the giver and the receiver as they move interchangeably in the beautiful act of washing feet.
With covid-19 devastating the world but especially Italy, I weep for them and their current circumstances. I pray for their people, knowing they have deep wells of resilience. I pray for us here in the US, too. That we would find a way back to the Last Supper – where Jesus loved and commanded us to love one another. A time where there was a seat at the table regardless of race, class, sexual preference or occupation. May we find something we’ve lost as a community – not only the love for our neighbor but also the need for our neighbor. God did not create us to live apart from our community – it wasn’t what he modeled in Christ incarnate nor in the early church. Rather, we can find our answers to our dependence on God through the material, recognizing He can show up in as an ass, a burning bush, or a prostitute. May we who have been invited to love as He has loved us, make a seat for everyone. Though to be clear – in the time of covid-19 this means sending money to food banks, delivering a meal to a neighbor using sanitation precautions, giving gift cards, or ordering food from local restaurants – whatever is needed to make sure everyone has a seat at the proverbial table.
May we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and courage to see our own ability to host a table or come sit the table – you being simply you. Finally, I trust that someone needs to read this – whoever you are – God sees you.
To Beth – I hear you. Your legacy lives on. And now, I’ll push the publish button. To Rome – I’ll be back and I’m bringing friends.