The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘Sicily

“Grace Alone” – a Sicilian report

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People gathered from all over Sicily, Italy, and beyond for the opening of the new church premises of Chiesa Cristiana Evangelica “Sola Grazia” in Caltanissetta, in the heart of Sicily. The building itself is beautiful, though it remains – in some of its details – a work in progress. Every major part of the whole is intended to communicate something of the truth of the church and its biblical convictions.

You enter the building as you reach the seventh step – hints of a Sabbath rest. The visitor walks through four ‘Gospel’ pillars into an octagonal meeting room, reminding us that the Lord Jesus met with his people on the day of resurrection, and eight days afterward. You come in from the west, leaving the darkness behind you. On the eastern side of the church, the pulpit is the focal point, and there the light of God’s Word is shining. Behind the pulpit are two windows, suggesting the Old and the New Testaments. Opposite the pulpit are three windows in front of one window. The light shining through the one also beams through the three, giving at least an inkling of the God whom we worship. On each side of the main hall are a further twelve windows, a nod to the patriarchs and the apostles reminding us of the church of all the ages, and the great cloud of witnesses about the church militant. All the light coming in shines from above. Simple decor and wise use of space indicate that the light of nature has also taught the people one or two things.

The grand opening began on the evening of Friday 2nd December 2016. The particular focus of this night was the immediate community, a good number of whom were represented in the crowd who filled the building, along with several local dignitaries. The first act of the evening was to go back outside for the unveiling of the stone plaque bearing the church’s name and the five key Reformation solas. Underneath, a bronze plate records thanks to the God of all grace, and to his people – known to himself – whose generosity has contributed to the erection of the building. Pastor Reno Ulfo spoke simply as the green cloth dropped from the plaque, and we all filed back inside.

The strains of “Amazing Grace” in Italian filled the building before Pastor Leonardo de Chirico (Chiesa Evangelica Breccia di Roma) opened proceedings. He spoke briefly and pungently of the purpose of the church, addressing the local authorities plainly, and broadening his gospel applications to all those gathered. It was both instruction in and an example of the priorities of the people of God. The local mayor responded, followed by one of his predecessors. Both spoke as politicians, but I thought that in both a note of personal respect and some interest could be detected. Certainly, this opens up a door of opportunity for the church. The fact that the building has been constructed without draining local civil funds – unusual for this part of the world – is a testimony in itself. Already this is established as a congregation that gives more than it takes.

Professor Bolognesi of Padova then briefly outlined the theological implications of the architecture. Pastor Reno went on to identify several people and groups who had made particular contributions to the building project. After this, a video history of the church was shown. Minor technical problems, typical of life in new premises, somewhat curtailed that exercise. I don’t believe anyone was too bothered, though, as it ushered in refreshments. Light and sweet Sicilian snacks paved the way for the heavy stuff – rice balls and varieties of pizza providing enough carbohydrates for the most demanding athletes, and with enough leftovers to keep many small armies on their feet for a week or two. One is tempted to suggest that a good twelve baskets of hefty fragments could have been gathered.

Notable on this first evening and over the whole weekend – and highlighted in Pastor Reno’s thanksgiving – was the investment of the whole church, both local and beyond. The tireless and generous contributions of God’s people were evident even before attention was drawn to them. The fruits of the work were often more evident than the workers themselves, but it was clear how much had been given by so many, in terms of time, energy, and expertise. The living stones have not been neglected for the sake of the concrete blocks. Particularly moving was Pastor Ulfo’s brief tribute to his family. Few will appreciate that, for all the pastor’s sacrifices, those made by his wife and children can often be greater. In some measure, they sacrifice him as well as for him and for the Lord. Giovanna Ulfo and the children deserve credit for the work that Reno Ulfo does, and it was good to see that publicly recorded. We pray that the fruit of Reno’s gospel labours might shine as brightly in his family as it does anywhere else.

As the night wound down, we drifted back to our various rooms and guesthouses. The Saturday began fairly slowly. The overseas preachers gathered again: Pastor Alan Dunn (Grace Covenant Baptist Church, Flemington, New Jersey, who was travelling with his wife, Patricia), Pastor Gordon Cook (Grace Baptist Church, Canton, Michigan), and myself. We met with a number of the key men at Caltanissetta, including all those involved in various church planting endeavours. We also chatted with our translator, Damion Wallace, to prepare for the next couple of days’ work. After the usual generous hospitality, we went back to our lodgings and prepared for the evening.

As we gathered, we discovered that some of our preparations had been less helpful than others. Damion was losing his voice. Alan Dunn had adopted a non-traditional way of arresting an unpremeditated act of violent genuflection he had undertaken in Reno’s home, viz. bringing his forehead into vigorous contact with a very hard object. Butterfly stitches and plasters had somewhat repaired the damage. Add in Gordon Cook’s travails in travel, and our fighting capacity was sliding badly. We forged ahead.

The focus of the ministry that night turned to the broader church, represented among us by various believers from around the island and further afield. With that in mind, we began to address the solas of the Reformation. I began with sola Scriptura, followed by Gordon Cook on solus Christus and Leonardo de Chirico on sola fide, before Alan Dunn closed the evening dealing with sola gratia. All the ministry seemed warmly appreciated, and fellowship over further piles of food was very profitable. There was clearly much intelligent and heartfelt engagement with the truth, and several men and women spoke thoughtfully and earnestly about what they were hearing.

The Lord’s day started early, and added to our catalogue of outward woes. Reno’s voice started to get croaky, and I had a blithe journey with a man who was late even before he casually announced that he did not know the way to the church building.

Despite all this, we started at a reasonable time. I completed the series on the solas with a study of soli Deo gloria. A brother called Jose was stepping in to assist with the translation, and did a cracking job. This day we were speaking more to the local church, and so I tried to make this a particular emphasis. From there we moved straight into the formal dedication of the building to the worship of the true and living God, and Pastor Reno preached the Word of God, giving us a wonderful survey of the concept of God’s temple throughout the Scriptures. He ensured we got and kept our eyes fixed on God’s presence among his people, rather than mere buildings. God also strengthened Damion’s voice and restored him to his duties, further assisted by Jose and Giovanni Marino, one of the faithful and gifted deacons in Caltanissetta. Several brothers – local pastors – stood and pleaded earnestly with God for a blessing on the church and its work in the new premises. Gordon Cook represented the visitors in this season of intercession.

Lunch followed before we turned, for the balance of the day, to the doctrines of grace. I opened on the depravity of fallen man, and was able to finish before the effects of our latest abundant feeding were too well-advanced. Pastor Dunn followed with redemptive-historical studies on the election of God and the redemption that Christ accomplished. The weight of these sessions was, for me, relieved by a delightful older lady doubtless using headphones for the first time. This meant that she regularly bellowed at her husband at a volume which ensured that she could hear her own voice. She also cackled loudly at anything humorous about fifteen seconds after it was spoken, as the translation caught up.

Given Reno’s other duties and to preserve his voice, I had the unexpected opportunity to address the irresistible grace of the Spirit’s work in the heart. By this stage, the folks were flagging, and several had been obliged to leave, so I kept it to about thirty minutes. Pastor Cook finished the public ministry by highlighting the perseverance and preservation of the saints, admirably demonstrated on one level by the fact that most of them were still listening to us after three days of intense teaching and preaching. Gordon’s focus on the double grip of divine power and love from John 10 was a fitting end. As Pastor Ulfo said, “dulcis in fundo” – “the sweet stuff is at the bottom.”

There seems little doubt that God’s strength was made perfect in our weakness on this occasion. Weariness, illness and injury in us was outmatched by grace and goodness in him and in the patience and earnestness of those hearing.

Monday morning saw Reno and I have a brief opportunity to explain the gospel to a couple of people at my lodging house. Attempts at trilingual (English, Italian, French) evangelising leave me half-wishing that the gift of tongues remained extant. Would it not be wonderful if these brief contacts bore gospel fruit?

We drifted toward Catania for Pastor Cook’s last preaching engagement and my flight home. Along the way, we stopped at a city set on a hill, Calascibetta. Unfortunately, far from being an enlightened and enlightening place, it was wrapped in fog and sunk in spiritual darkness. A visit to the Roman Catholic church building confirmed the vacuity of the question driving one hundred conferences in the next year: Is the Reformation over? That so much genuine spiritual ugliness could be communicated in a place of undeniable architectural beauty answered that question, for these falsehoods if not for many more. Flagrant Mariolatry vied for the laurel of ungodliness with statues of the church ‘patron’, Peter, decked out in all the regalia and symbolic power of the pope. From the position of the building to the message of the decor to the arrogance of the priest (it became clear as we spoke that he was an old-school Catholic and personally godless), it all shouts a message of carnal dominion that Islam itself can only rival.

Walking back down the damp streets, we paused at the prison from which a man called Francesco Giovanni Porcaro was taken by the Spanish Inquisition to his death by burning. His crimes? Denying Christ in the sacrament, indulgences, and the pope, as well as propagating the doctrines of Luther and other errors, and continuing in the above with all obstinacy. It is good to know that the light once shone in this now-gloomy city. We should pray that it would prove true once more – post tenebras, lux! Reno’s promise that there would be open-air gospel preaching on this spot in the coming year was some consolation that the light of the knowledge of the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ would again beam forth. But who knows what price this and coming generations must pay for such faithfulness?

Sobered, we entered Catania and found some food at Fud, a delightful restaurant where options included horse and donkey. I opted for a more than bearable and not too risky buffalo, joined by Reno. Patricia Dunn, afflicted throughout the weekend by the presence of all the men, and having worked like a Trojan alongside the friends at Sola Grazia, opted for a ladylike salad. Alan had something fittingly but reliably cheesy, and Gordon got himself outside of a sandwich that may have involved a fairly safe chicken.

Our conversation over lunch centred on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the churches we love and serve. As ever, hard questions rarely produce easy answers. Still, they are better than empty questions carelessly shrugged off.

It was with joy and sorrow that we arrived at the airport. It had been sweet fellowship in Christ and his service, and there was more work for us all to do already looming. With mutually renewed promises of communication and prayer, information to exchange and promises to keep, I strolled through security. They drove off into the sunset, and I flew off into the darkness.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 12 December 2016 at 14:38

An Italian odyssey II

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A week last Wednesday we flew from Milan to Catania, a city in the east of the island of Sicily (seeing Etna in its cloudy glory as we arrived).  We were met there by Giovanni Marino, a brother from the Chiesa Battista Riformata “Sola Grazia” in Caltanissetta.  Giovanni plays a major role in the Alfa & Omega publishing venture overseen by Andrea Ferrari and Reno Ulfo, the pastor of the Caltanissetta church.  There is no point asking Giovanni precisely what he does for Alfa & Omega, as the list is too long.  Typesetting, proofreading, accounting, shipping – the guy just keeps the show on the road.

Giovanni took us to Syracuse, where Paul stayed for three days on his journey to Rome (Acts 28.12).  We saw there the Catacombs of San Giovanni, ancient Christian tombs.  The guide there gave us a great demonstration of reading from wish into history rather than from history to truth.  The cracking example of this was when we stood by the tombs of two older women, about 80 and 84 years respectively (I think).  With a completely straight face, the guide ran us through the following stream of illogic: most married women had short life spans on account of the rigours of childbirth – these women were probably not married – that probably means that they were nuns – amongst the nuns they would have received the care that extended their life so much – see what a great thing it is to be nun.  Classic stuff, and by no means the only example of wishful thinking – I still can’t get my head round how they managed to shoehorn the apostle Peter into Syracuse ahead of Paul so as to validate the claims of the Roman Catholic communion.  From there we went to the Greek theatre and Roman amphitheatre across the town, and then went to Ortygia, the island in the bay.  One fascinating sight there is a freshwater fountain scant feet from the sea.

Giovanni then drove us across half the island to Caltanissetta, where Reno and Giovanna Ulfo live with their two sons, Giovanni and Luca, and their young daughter Irene, and a member of the extended family/lodger, Laetitzia (I think that’s the right spelling).  Giovanna’s father, Salvatore, lives downstairs and tends faithfully to a small plot of land with olive and lemon trees, and a few other fruits.  Bel the dog guards the gate.  They are a delightful family, and we settled in very quickly.

Reno had plans when we arrived, and sketched them out to us, so on Thursday we were off again.  Borrowing Reno’s car, we headed for the Agrigento, and the Valley of the Temples.  There we strolled along the ridge that contains a series of stunning ruins, some more restored, others less so.  We got a good history lesson as we went, thanks to the audio-guide from the ticket office.  That took most of the day, and afterward we headed to the beach at San Leone for a couple of hours rest and an ice-cream at the warmly-recommended Le Cuspide.  At an appropriate hour, we headed north-ish through Agrigento (my first experience of Sicilian rush-hour town traffic) toward Raffadali, there to be picked up at a petrol station by a brother from the church in Santa Elisabetta, a man called Santo.  We spent the night with him and with his wife Pina, and – despite their lack of English and our lack of Italian – had a wonderful time together.  They almost killed us with kindness when it came to dinner, but we rested well that night.  From there, we headed off again, north and west to Palermo, the main city on Sicily.  We made it down to the seafront, parked and walked into the city to look at the cathedral and some other sites.  Our plans were scuppered by the most random series of roadblocks and traffic stoppages I have ever seen.  No one seemed able to explain the problem, but there were cars and people snarled up on every road and intersection we used.  It was slow going, and so our time was more limited.

We had to move on for a lunch appointment at a restaurant at Isola delle Femmine (the Island of Women, an old prison for the ladies) a few miles outside Palermo.  Reno had arranged a magnificent fish lunch, which – I understand – was basically a series of dishes of things caught a few hours earlier.  Octopus was followed by anchovies, followed by mussels and other small shellfish, then two oysters, then risotto with more shellfish, and spaghetti with calamari and other chunks of seafood.  Then came the main course: two fish whose names I forget of different but complimentary flavours.  Just as my eyes were rolling upward, the dessert arrived: pineapple cut to look like a fish.  Absolutely delicious, but not the best preparation for another assault on the traffic of Palermo.

Nevertheless, we made it round the rim of the city and out again to a high town called Monreale, where there is another cathedral, this one with a series of Byzantine mosaics in layers around the walls.  Despite a wedding going on – looked more like an extended and glorified Mass with people more dressed up than usual – we were able to find a parking spot within walking distance of the cathedral, and to spend time wandering around the building.  It was stunning, and – all things being relative – it was refreshing to see Christ given a place of prominence and power, rather than the weak images of a dying man to which we had grown accustomed.  The main image in the church was one of Christ Pantokrator.  Around the walls were images of most of the main and memorable scenes from Scripture – the ‘Bible’ of the illiterate church attendee.  It was fascinating to see some of those representations – Christ walking in the garden of Eden, for example.

From Monreale, we headed back into Palermo once last time before heading ‘home’ to Caltanissetta with some weariness and relief.  We arrived mid-evening on Friday to the news that I would be preaching Saturday evening and Sunday morning in Caltanissetta, and Sunday evening back in Santa Elisabetta, at a church pastored by Vito Tangorra.  Before that, a run – Reno promised to take me to a flatter bit of Sicily.  Again, all things are relative, but it was no grief to run through more of the beautiful and varied landscape of this island (well, the top of one hill was a bit of grief).  Forty-five minutes later and we were done, making our way home to prepare for the preaching.

Reno asked me to reprise my sermons from 2Kgs 13, bringing lessons from the character of Joash.  On Saturday evening we set the scene: the dying Elisha called upon Joash to demonstrate his whole-hearted engagement in the cause of God by means of an acted oracle. Joash should have been stirred and energised by the promises of God and the prospect of victory, but showed himself a feeble man lacking in spiritual and moral vigour. His attitude and character pose a challenge to every member of Christ’s church: three arrows or six?  We considered some of those spheres in which we are called by God to ‘shoot arrows’ – to make our statements of intent relying on the promises of God with the prospect of victory: our plans for God’s glory; our prayers for Christ’s kingdom; our warfare with sin; our cultivation of graces; our grasp of the truth; our effectiveness in service; and, fundamentally, our pursuit of salvation if outside of Christ.

Sunday morning Reno reviewed the previous evening before we looked at reasons why we shoot only three arrows: unbelief; a lack of zeal; disobedience to God; pride and presumption; doubt about ourselves; unrighteous dependence on others; a fear of appearing foolish; false sentimentality; love of applause; and, laziness.  This was by far the longest session, even taking into account the demands of translation.  Giovanni Marino and his wife Eloise had us for lunch, and again we appreciated warm fellowship and good food before heading on the longish drive to Santa Elisabetta.  There I preached with Reno the final sermon to a congregation from S. Elisabetta and others from the Caltanissetta church who had made the journey.  Why should we shoot six arrows?  Because the vigour of our enemy demands it; because the honour of God is bound up in it; because the extension of Christ’s kingdom is involved in it; because the health of Christ’s church requires it; because the blood of the Saviour cries out for it; and, because the cause of Christ is worthy of it.

After a meal, we headed home to Caltanissetta.  Early the following morning we headed out in the Reno-mobile for Catania, flying back to Milan Malpensa.  After five hours sitting in the airport terminal with Caleb increasingly overjoyed by the abundance of aeroplanes, we flew again to Gatwick, arriving home early evening to be picked up, fed and watered, and delivered home in time to start the working week.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 14 June 2008 at 22:06

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Comings and goings

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A slower Monday today, which is always a pleasant treat for an alleged day off. The weather here is foul, leading to the cancellation of a planned barbecue for the church here, and other friends. At the moment we have to contend with the rain (heavy for the last few hours, leading to the bottom part of our garden being about three inches under water); the wind (driving said rain fairly horizontally at times), and a less than BBQ-esque coolness to the temperature (13˚C rising to a balmy 15˚C). Anyway, the net result is that I am nibbling away at a variety of tasks while listening to BBC Radio 4’s magnificent Test Match Cricket, as England attempt to grind out a win against a New Zealand side trying to haul themselves back into a match that they might easily have won, were it not for an England-style batting collapse in their second innings.

Anyway, I am in the first week of a busier patch. Last Saturday I was preaching at Hope Chapel in Haslemere (a place hung between Godalming, Horsham and Petersfield). It was their 160th anniversary, and I was privileged to be their preacher for the afternoon. There were more present than they had feared, but fewer than they had hoped, but not bad considering that it was a bank holiday weekend. The congregation there is facing some particular challenges, so I preached on the fulness of Christ from Colossians 1.19, seeking to demonstrate the fulness of redemptive blessing located in the person of the Saviour, sufficient to bring his people into his kingdom and keep and bless them in it. Driving home through delightful evening sunshine, I was struck afresh with the beauty of the world that God has made. As I drifted cross-country down largely empty lanes on the way home, the wisdom of the Creator, and the sheer splendour of trees and fields and sun and sky made the trip a genuine pleasure.

Then, yesterday, I was preaching at Pains Hill Chapel. Again, they have a delightful setting, hard by the edge of Limpsfield Common. There was a gentle mist both morning and evening that only added to the charm of the place. The building itself is a couple of hundred years old, having been built in 1823. It has been very sensitively renovated in more recent years, and is a bright and pleasant building, with a good broad platform, a lovely place in which to gather for the worship of God. I preached in the morning from Hebrews 8.12, on the free, full, fixed and final pardon from God which is the basis of our reconciliation with him, accomplished through the propitiating death of Jesus Christ, and establishing intimate communion with the God of the covenant. In the evening I reprised a recent sermon from ‘home,’ preaching again on 2 Peter 3 concerning the coming day of the Lord, and the need to live lives that both prepare for our coming face to face with him, and that call others likewise to prepare. Again, the half-term holiday meant that a few families were missing, but I believe that the Lord met with us as we worshipped, and we enjoyed some delightful fellowship during the day.

Then we are heading away this week to visit friends in Italy. The first weekend we will be in Milan, God willing, where I will be preaching at a family conference hosted by Chiesa Battista Riformata Filadelfia, where my friend Andrea Ferrari pastors the church. The topic for the weekend is The Christian family. I have five sermons, plus question-and-answer sessions. I am focusing on a Biblical approach to the relationship between husband and wife, built on a gospel foundation, considering also the distinctive roles of men and women within the family, and the common distortions and perversions of those roles. We will also take time to consider the effectiveness of a healthy, happy and holy relationship as a living sermon, and the dangers of hypocrisy. Then we move on, taking a few days break in Sicily with Pastor Reno Ulfo of Chiesa Battista Riformata “Sola Grazia” in Caltanissetta. Reno has asked me to rework my material on 2 Kings 13, drawing lessons from the character of Joash, preaching three times over the weekend with them. These two brothers are the driving force behind the publishing house Alfa & Omega.

Then we return home for a fraternal hosted by the church here in Crawley, where – by a stroke of majestically poor planning – I am in line to preach twice. As you have the opportunity, please pray for God to be glorified in all these things, and for the sustaining of heart and mind and soul and strength in serving him in these coming days.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 26 May 2008 at 14:49

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