Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Travels to Italy: Part 2

The main duration of our time in Italy is staying at a little farmhouse renovated for guests about 45 minutes outside of Florence. We had chosen not to include a GPS unit in our Avis rental car figuring that:

* at US$15.50 a day x 10 days that money could be better spent on more wine

* we had every intention of just getting lost in Italy.

Granted, there were a handful of times in the last couple days it would have come in handy. As an American I was used to well marked highways with signage that is both plentiful and that usually give you adequate time to make necessary lane changes. In Italy…not so much! But we eventually made it to “Borga Isadora” which is a beautiful restored 19th century farmhouse. The grounds are just what you would come to expect in your most romantic notions of Tuscany. It was so beautiful that tears came to Tammy’s eyes as Maria, the owner, gave us a tour of our new home for the week. Our first night in Tuscany was a homemade pasta meal with chicken, bread, olive oil, and wine! Bueno!

On Friday, we got up bright and early (actually because of jet lag) for our first excursion into Florence. Yes, I actually drove into Florence white knuckles and all. Crazy roundabouts, meandering streets, and scooters swarming around like angry hornets…but we made it.

Florence is everything you might imagine it to be. It seems to radiate culture and class from its very core. Every turn seems to lead to something interesting whether it is an old church, home, museum, shop, or cafe.

Our day seemed to be filled with eating pizza, drinking coffee, and admiring some of the most famous pieces of art in human history. For me though the most inspiring moment was standing before Michelangelo’s “David”. I know I should be snobbish and gawk over some other more obscure piece that you had never heard of...but I can't. From the minute you walk into the gallery Academia and make your first turn you are confronted with Michelangelo's most famous work. Standing 17 fet tall, the sculpture of the shepherd boy who would be king confronting the unseen Goliath seems to capture art in its purest form.

We followed up Florance the next day with trips to the medieval cities of San Gimignano and Volterra. Both are towns caught in a time warp that somehow look like Disney's Fantasyland without the rides. Walled cities on a hill top with battle towers and fortresses hide quaint little shops and cafes that command beautiful views overlooking the hills of Tuscany. We ate at a beautiful restaurant that served us wild boar with goat cheese as an appetizer.

At night the streets of Volterra became downright eerie and took on a backdrop right out of an Anne Rice novel. These are most certainly the alleyways the vampire Lestant would prowl at night. The feeling was heightened when we toured the Palace Vitti which was (is) an elegant aristocratic manor with paintings on the walls with ancient family members that looked like...well vampires. Then at the end of the tour we got to go down to the crypt to have a glass of wine...well, the picture says it all.

In actuality, the Vitti family still own the palace and Senora Vitti herself made us feel very welcome. It was a wonderful experience.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Travels to Italy: Part 1

Although we didn’t need to leave for the airport until 8:00 AM…we were up at 5. Why? Because after many delays, we were finally off to our vacation in Italy. The European trip began being put together by my mom and my wife a couple years ago. We were moving to China for a new job and my parents, who have been to China many times already, proposed that they not visit us there but that we meet up for a vacation together somewhere in Europe. That idea gradually morphed into a our Tuscany adventure.

We were supposed to make the trip during the week long Chinese New Year Holiday back in February but my recent job relocation to Hong Kong ended up delaying the trip until now. Yes, we did get some flack for taking Gabriel out of school for this but I figure:

* He’s in the 7th grade…he’ll make it up before university
* Thirty years from now he’ll remember walking around Florence with his grandparents and have no memory, or care, for the school lessons he missed this week!

So, about 7:50 AM we rolled our little suitcases out the door and down to the Park Island airport shuttle for Hong Kong International. Of course, for Tammy and Gabriel a trip to the airport means not only a flight but a visit to Popeye’s chicken. For some reason, Popeye’s is in no other place in Hong Kong save the airport and once clearing immigration both made a beeline for the chicken palace. In fact after scarfing down a chicken breakfast I had to buy a half dozen pieces to go just incase my 6 month pregnant wife suddenly got cravings at 30,000 feet.
Our flight to Rome was on the Russian carrier Aeroflot and was routed through Moscow. I must admit, as a child of the 80’s and of Ronald Reagan’s America, the thought of flying into the heart of the former Soviet Union was somewhat exhilarating for me. After all, while growing up, this was the heart of the “evil empire” and the “iron curtain”. In actually, it turned out rather uneventful. No gulag, Pravda, or KGB stories to tell, just ended up chatting with an American from Broomfield Colorado in the transit lounge. (Ah…the irony!)

The one interesting thing flying Aeroflot was the sudden realization that it was a “dry flight”. When the steward asked me what I wanted to drink I asked for a glass of wine. He looked at me uncomfortably and muttered that they were out. I then asked for a beer to which I found out that there was no alcohol served in economy class of the flight. Now, I’ve been flying Internationally for over 20 years and I have never seen alcohol not available on a flight. Seeing that many of the people on the plane looked like extras in a Guy Ritchie movie, it would appear a tactical decision to keep everyone sober had been made. Scanning my flight companions in the cabin I would say it was a wise decision. I ordered apple juice!

Landing in Rome we headed to the Avis counter to collect our reserved rental car. I admit I was a little anxious. I hadn’t driven in over a year and now I would be driving the streets of a foreign country at night trying to find our hotel…and with a stick shift! The plan was to meet up with my parents at the hotel for a night before departing in the morning for Tuscany and our rented farmhouse. 30 minutes and 2 wrong turns later we arrived at the hotel for our first night in Italy!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Restore the Sanity 2010

I try not to blog too often on Jon Stewart and the Daily Show...else I would hardly blog about anything else...but when he announced his "Restore the Sanity" rally for October 30 in Washington DC, I had to get on board.

Lets face it, things have gotten really weird...and it started long before Obama. When George W. Bush was in office I was always disturbed when I would see, normally calm, intelligent Democrat acquaintances suddenly have a Jekyll & Hyde reaction at the very mention of his name. Eyes would glaze over, teeth would gnash, and no reason could penetrate the notion that from the time W. got up in the morning till he went to bed at night, he was Satan incarnate.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Now it seems with Obama...its gotten even worse. If I mention to some Republican friends that although I wouldn't vote for him, I think he's articulate and has some good qualities I will inevitably be given a look of sheer incongruity.

"But Steve, surely you know he is a: (Choose 1)

A) Atheist
B) Muslim
C) Black Panther Christian

who was born in

A) Kenya
B) Indonesia (but don't ask me where that's at)
C) hell (and is the anti-Christ)

and he's trying to

A) create a socialist Amerika
B) make it legal for a man to be able to marry his own pet
c) take away all my rocket propelled grenade launchers

and I know all of this because:

A) Rush Limbaugh
B) Glenn Beck
c) Sarah Palin

told me so (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit). So here is your

A) handgun
B) shotgun
C) rocket propelled grenade launcher

and get ready, because this revolution will be televised on

A) Fox News
B) Fox News
C) Fox News

I give credit to Stewart in his promotion of the rally. Although he vents Left in his politics, he takes an equal swipe at both sides of the craziness. And they have both gone crazy!

I wish I were in the States in October because this is one rally I would attend. Its my kind of people...people who I can stand with and proclaim with one voice,

"WE ARE HERE...but only till 6:00 because we have a sitter!"

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Incredible (Disappearing) Video Store

I did something today I haven't done for a long time. I went to the video store and got a membership! Wow! Renting movies from a store. How "5 minutes ago is that?" The reason was that Park Island, where I live here in Hong Kong, has a small DVD store so I decided to give it a try...for old time sake.

Walking in, it almost had the feeling of nostalgia. Like a last glimpse at a way of life that would soon disappear. Its a shame really.

These days I tend to download TV shows and movies from iTunes, stream from the Internet, or purchase cheap DVDs on my occasional trips into China.

But before all that was possible...there was "the video shop".

I remember, it must have been about 1983, the time our family got our first video player. Wow! To be able to record a movie from the TV and watch it again at your leisure later...what a concept. Till that time, movies like the Wizard of Oz came on once a year...if you missed it, tough luck, you waited till the next year. I remember one night in the late 1970's when Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was showing on a Sunday evening but my parents insisted on our all going to church instead. I was beside myself in was every week, Willy Wonka was only once a year. (Couldn't they do the math?) Now with VHS, Willy Wonka could be watched every day, if I wanted.

Suddenly, every retail store was in on the video rental game. Even my local 7-11 made a short lived stab at renting videos. Hard to believe that you had to pay for a membership in those early days and if you wanted to purchase a movie on video, it could run as high as US$100.

So, here is my ode to the video stores that meant so much to me through the years:

Movieland: (Shelby, Michigan): First video store I "lived" at. It was run by a little old couple that didn't know much about movies but I think decided to give this new market product a shot. If someone asked the old man if they had a movie he yell over to me as I was perusing the tapes, "Hey Steve, do we have this movie." I rented from that shop from 1983 till about '87. It eventually became a auto parts shop and I have no idea whatever happened to the little old couple. However, I did go on a date with one of the young attendant's they hired...that didn't go so well :)

KPS video: (Shatin, Hong Kong) From about the time Tammy and I got married, the KPS video chain exploded in Hong Kong. A trip to the mall at New Town Plaza could hardly not involve a trip to this video store. A phone call to each other would often be, "I'll pick up dinner and make a stop by "Kipps" for a movie." When a Typhoon would hit Hong Kong you would see a congo line of people snaking out into the mall stocking up on films to ride out the storm. Unfortunately, KPS overextended themselves in expansion and eventually went out of business about 1998.

Movieland: (Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong) When the church I pastored finally got it's own space in Lan Kwai Fong, the Movieland across the street immediately got one of its best customers. The shop was run by a young Filipino man who started buying whole TV series for rental. Finally, I was able to catch up on Star Trek as well as being introduced to Friends. I was pleasantly surprised to see when I returned to Hong Kong after 10 years that the store was still there. I talked with the young lady who worked there and said that although business was tougher these days, they were still doing OK.

The Video Station: (Boulder, Colorado): Probably the best video store I have been in ever. It is staffed on its two floors by people who know and love film. When a friend recommended an Indian movie I "must see" I went up to the Video Station and asked them, "You probably haven't heard of it, but I'm looking for the Indian movie Devdas." Instead of looking at me with the blank stare I would have got at any other video store, he smiled and said, "Do you want it on VHS or DVD?" I loved the Video Station and it was my video store "home" during my Boulder Colorado years.

Something will be missed when the video store finally disappears for good. As a unashamed movie lover, there was something about the vibe of talking to other people abut films, discussing recommendations, and the hours of perusing the synopsis on the backs of movies, sometimes discovering that unknown cinematic gem.

I'm not sure if "Video killed the Radio Star", but I do know that the internet is killing the video store. One day, when its gone for good, many of us my age will look back with great affection and be telling our grandchildren of a time "when you could go up to these stores, and they would rent you movies."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

More Thoughts on God's Grace

The Grace of God has become new to me... all over again. That's one (of many) things I love about God. Just when you think you reached the top step of understanding in an area, He opens the door, and there's a whole 'nother staircase.

And now, after 34 years of being a Christian and 20 years of pastoral ministry I realize I'm just scratching the surface in my understanding of God's "Unmerited Favor".

In the last few months I've been exposed to some powerful teachings on Grace. Whether from guys like Rob Rufus at City Church International, old friends like Paul Ellis, or new acquaintances like Cornel Marais I've been challenged to see what the Grace of God can do when it is not just applied to my own relationship with God, but when it is unleashed on the church.

Now understand, the fact that we do not have to earn God's favor was a concept that came pretty easy to me. That my Heavenly Father loved me despite my behavior was normal because that was the relation I had with my earthly father. I never had to earn my parents love. If I behaved well, they loved me; if I behaved badly, they loved me. My position in the family did not change. Earning or performing were not part of my upbringing...

But the church is full of people today who think that when they sin, somehow they are outside the covering of God and once they repent, they are welcomed back in. I don't think our relationship with God is that fragile, and at worst it nullifies in our hearts the sacrifice Christ made on the cross. Our standing before God rests on Christ's actions, not ours. (Thank God :)

What if, though, people were freed of the constant burden of spending most of their time trying to get "right" with God? What if we people didn't feel like they had to expend so much effort simply trying to get back to the starting line?

Take for instance, "men's groups" in church. I can't tell you how many of these I've been part of over the years, and they nearly all end up the same. Rather than preparing, equipping, and unleashing men for leadership in the church, they degenerate into "how to overcome sexual temptation discussions". The Grace of God and an understanding of His righteousness is replaced with trying to overcome sin on our own strength...and because we can NEVER do that, our effectiveness for the Kingdom of God is buried under the crippling weight of guilt and shame!

And that is just one small example...

* What if the church didn't grasp after the latest leadership or organizational "model" but embraced Grace?

* What if we stopped trying to analyze how "authentic" or "relevant" we are and instead enjoyed a journey with God that was paved in His Grace?

* What if we didn't focus on ourselves, but on the the Grace that comes to us through Jesus Christ?

MMmmmm...What if?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Movie Review: The Expendables

Got to go see The Expendables this week. Even before I saw it here in Hong Kong, the box office success in U.S. seemed to indicate I wasn't the first Reagan America weaned, over 40 American male pining for a trip down memory lane involving some serious Stallone & Co. inspired body count!

Hey, I admit it. I'm a product of the 80's. Any given Tuesday, say circa 1985, would often involve me and my friend Tom catching the dollar show and Schwarzenegger's Commando or Stallone's Rambo. Then we'd get out to the parking lot after the movie, start talking about it, realize the movie was only a dollar, and go see it again! Good times...good times. (You know I mentioned Tom a few posts back, if this keeps up I'll have to give him his own label)

Anyhow, I connected with an old friend here who, coincidentally, left Hong Kong with his family about the same time we did 10 years ago. We met for dinner before the show and had a good laugh at how things came together in our lives that brought us both back to the territory. When I called him up to ask him if he'd be interested in seeing The Expendables he said, "Steve, you read my mind.".

The movie turned out to be pretty good. It followed the tried and true formula you come to expect. South American drug cartel is oppressing a small Latino town and Stallone and Co. get hired to right wrongs, kick some butt, and save the girl!

The gimmick to the film is the movie's use of familiar action heroes from the past including brief cameos from Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Dolph Lundgren, who last squared off against Stallone as the Russian fighter Draco in Rocky IV, also is part of Sly's crack mercenary company. Micky Rourke plays an ex member of the team that Stallone goes to for advice and acts as the spiritual advisor for the team.
Rourke is so good, and brings so much gravitas to the role, that when he is on screen, you think you're watching an Oscar nominated Best Actor scene...that is before you remember that this is a 80's homage shoot-em-up!

As good as it is to see Stallone again what really makes the movie zing is Jason Statham. What is it about this guy that you love even the way he beats up other guys? Then add Jet Li...and the team is good to go...

My son asked me what I thought of the movie on a scale of 1-10. Being a film lover I feel I have to qualify my answer. As a movie in general, I have to give it a 7. It is what it is and doesn't try to be more than that. But rating it based on what it is, I give it a 9. It was lots of fun and I'll be looking out for "The Expendables 2".

Maybe by then we'll see an over the hill Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme joining the team!