Tuscany, Italy

Tuscany! You were astonishing and everything we ever dreamed you would be.

It seems I always have some long ridiculous story of how we got to our locations. So here goes another one:

We left Rome in the morning around 10am, walked to the train station and caught the first train we could get out to Florence. It’s worked out so well not to book any of the trains in advance, you really don’t need to. It was another 2 hour train ride that actually made me feel pretty motion sick because we were faced backwards the whole journey. We knew it was going to be a little bit of a confusing mess to get to our airbnb because it wasn’t right in the bustling city and we wanted to make a stop along a bus route for groceries.

So I’m the navigator in our marriage. We use my phone and my accounts to communicate with hosts and make any arrangements. It’s honestly probably my need for control (a characteristic Robbie really LACKS which I’ve always been thrilled about. But poor guy that he’s married to me!) that makes me want to have the phone in my own hand, making sure I’m getting us to where we need to be. So we came out of the Florence train station and needed to be a handful of blocks away to catch a bus. It’s not ever like Omaha in these European cities, that’s for sure, where the streets are all in a perfect grid and super easy to figure out where you are on a map and what direction you’re facing. There was this big busy roundabout in front of the station where we exited, with possibly 6 streets intersecting at once. I was certain we needed to get straight across the roundabout to a street on the other side. So we battled through some crowds to get over there, taking us an inconveniently long amount of time to traverse it all, just to find that we needed to be on a street so very close to the station in the opposite direction. So yeah, we ended up just walking in one huge circle for 15 minutes with heavy backpacks attached to us for no reason. (And I hate to admit that I made us do a very similar thing, except even *more* out of the way, in Copenhagen a month ago). I just say this to remember even these kinds of frustrating moments. It’s real life and you don’t get to see in photographs the part where your back hurts and you’re sweating and tired from travel. Robbie, of course, had the best attitude and kept laughing and teasing me like, “Uhhh, honey? Remember when we walked in that big circle for no reason and it was so much fun?” hahaha

We get over to Piazza Indipendenza, wait for bus 23A (not B! that’s crucial! haha) and get on board (didn’t buy tickets, couldn’t figure out where or how, and no one ever asked us on board even though we saw people scanning their bus cards. *sigh*. Sometimes you just end up with free transportation even though it’s sort of cheating and you just try not to feel guilty and instead be grateful that it’s one less thing you spent money on.) We rode this bus for 40 minutes until it ended at a town called Sorgane outside of Florence. We knew there was a bus toward the town of Bagno a Ripoli that would be coming shortly that we needed to get on somewhere close by (but didn’t know where). Our airbnb host for the week had warned me this particular bus only runs a few times a day, not like every 8 minutes like the ones out of Florence. We walked a little ways down an empty residential street, found a bus stop that hosted bus 48 that we needed, checked the schedule and realized we had missed it by a few minutes and the next one wouldn’t be for more than another hour. So we managed to figure out that the grocery store we wanted to drop in at was about a kilometer away! Not too bad– only crappy in the heat with heavy backpacks on our chests and backs. Not to drag this out too much, but we get to Coop (the grocery store) and it was very nice and much bigger than any supermarket we’ve been to yet (probably because we haven’t been to ones outside of the city before). We pinpoint the bus 48 stop right outside of Coop and even reconfirm when the bus would be arriving there. I knew I had about 40 minutes to grab enough stuff for 6 days in the hills– which seemed like a perfect amount of time.

Robbie stayed outside with the backpacks and to watch for the bus. For some reason this grocery trip was incredibly stressful for me. The carts weren’t big enough for everything I was grabbing off the shelves (I think in these parts of the world people are doing daily or every other day trips to the grocery instead of weekly or even bi-weekly like in America, so the carts aren’t big at all), I was having such a hard time figuring out meals in my head on the spot and how much to buy, I struggled in the pasta aisle because I needed pasta sauce in a jar but all they had was tomato sauce in jars (again, something I’m presuming is that Italians make their own pasta sauce instead of buying it pre-made. I would have loved to make my own pasta sauce had I known I’d have spices and herbs but I knew I wouldn’t, so pre-made was the best option. I ended up finding one brand that was true pasta sauce and not just tomatoes pureed but it took forever and wasted probably ten minutes of the precious time we had before this next bus was supposed to come.), etc. I honestly felt like I was on the gameshow Supermarket Sweep, where I had someone timing how quickly I could grab everything I needed for meals for a week and fit it along with sodas and snacks into a tiny cart in the smallest amount of time. It wouldn’t be so bad if I knew the bus would be running every few minutes and I could take my sweet time, or if we could just come back the next day to grab what we forgot or couldn’t fit-but the next day was Sunday and the buses don’t run on Sundays there. Bah! Anyway– I get to the checkout and I’m so stressed. I have WAYY more items than anyone else is checking out with and I look like this ridiculous American with loads of ravioli and pre-made pizzas, cereal and pop trying to get through the line with a cashier who hardly speaks English (rightfully so!!). They don’t have grocery baggers in Europe so I’m paying for my items and then the next person behind me is checking out and I’m still over there furiously bagging my items as quickly as I can, stopping and waiting to keep asking for more bags from the cashier. So I’m waiting for more bags and more customers are checking out and leaving and I’m just wishing Robbie could see me from outside, run into the store and help me bag and carry my stuff since the cart gets taken from you before you leave. So after what felt like an eternity of me being overwhelmed, in everyone’s way, trying to fit so many items into these bags, literally sweat dripping off my face, I attempt to carry out 6 bags (and an unbagged frozen pizza and a 4-pack of cokes that wouldn’t fit into the amount of bags the lady gave me)… I walk outside, spot Robbie and just yell “I need help” as I’m about to drop everything. Even though I was stressed and a little frustrated with how rushed I felt, I was so glad I got everything done in time with about 5 minutes to spare before the bus would come. —Oh guys, I wish we had a picture of my disappointment when after all this Robbie tells me we had read the bus schedule wrong and the bus had come fifteen minutes earlier and we’d have another hour to wait. ugh! I spent about 2 minutes wallowing in self-pity before I picked myself up, got our backpacks and walked over to sit at the bus stop.

Because we had four backpacks we were already carrying, plus a tripod– 6 full grocery bags that were ripping from weight, and some unbagged items too, it really didn’t make sense to go back into the grocery with the extra time we had and try to get more items. Regardless, I figured I did alright and we got onto this tiny bus (more like a van) and stopped somewhere up in the hills at Case di San Romolo stop to our lovely host waiting for us. What a relief. She drove us the maybe 200 meters up a hill to her gated “Casale Fontibucci” as it was called. This castle was built in the 1100’s and was actually originally a watch tower that would be used wayyyy back in history for signaling to the other watch towers in Tuscany that there was a fire or other disaster happening that they could see from their view that maybe the city of Florence (Firenze, to be accurately Italian) couldn’t see. And then maybe even more interesting is that it ended up being the home of Michaelangelo’s stone mason! haha What a claim to fame, but so much history! I just love it!

It took our breath away immediately. Stefania, our truly phenomenal and wonderfully sweet host gave us a tour of the grounds and I don’t know how many times Robbie and I said “Wow” as we traversed her property that looked out right over Florence and the surrounding hills. Right away we made a pizza (a frozen margherita pizza in Italy is better than a lot of pizzas from a restaurant in the states). We experimented and cooked it on the stove because there was no oven. haha Surprisingly a huge success! Just put the pizza on a pan with a pot lid covering it on low heat. It got the crust crispy and the cheese melty. Robbie opened the windows of the kitchen exposing the summer breeze that wandered in while we had worship playing. The sun trickled down onto the terracotta floors while we “cooked.” Afterward, Robbie took a nap outside in the sunshine near the pool while I read my Bible as the sun set on our first afternoon there. We set up chairs overlooking the hills of Tuscany and watched the sun set slowly into a blue and pink sky in the distance, hand in hand, head on his shoulder. Our host gifted us homemade jams (apricot and cherry) and her family’s homemade wine they make right there on the grounds. We came inside right as the sun withered away to nothing and made another little pizza to share. It was perfect. We put on jazzy music (that sounded like Christmas time. It was so romantic.) and Robbie squeezed his arms all the way around me while we stood next to the open kitchen windows, watching the Florence skyline twinkle way off in the valley, cradled between the hills. We sat and talked for two hours at the table under a dim light and then played the silly card game gin rummy until 11:30. Everything about this first night was magic. I don’t know how many times we spoke of how blessed we felt, how personally grateful we were for those moments. Sometimes you have moments that you don’t realize will be amazing memories until later, so maybe in the moment itself you didn’t appreciate it for what it was truly worth. But this week in Tuscany, we inhaled every second of time together, knowing full well what each moment meant and how much it would mean to us even after we left. The week was slow and kind to us. Exactly what we needed to give us time to reflect, read, dream, and pray.

Our days were simple. A lot of pots of sub-par coffee were made yet still enjoyed at all hours of the day from morning to sunset. A lot of delicious ravioli, pizza and coca-cola. A lot of bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, homemade jams, and Italian cheese with fresh salami. Our days were spent with the background of “coffeetable jazz” playlist on spotify on repeat, making every minute feel whimsical. They were spent taking walks along the Bagno a Ripoli roads and seeing where they led into the hills, reading (for hours and hours each day) in the shade of the trees with the view of the vast hillside. They were spent dipping our toes in the chilly pool water, holding hands, sitting in chairs in the lawn with our legs on each others legs talking about where God was leading us (again, these wonderful conversations lasting for hours and before we knew it it was dinner time). These days were spent feeling truly refreshed and reenergized by Jesus. I witnessed Robbie staying up late because he couldn’t get enough of the book of Daniel, I watched as he pursued Jesus on his knees with me as we prayed on the floor of our little home in the country for as long as we could.

We still don’t know where the Lord is calling us, but we are learning so much. We are devouring His Word and feeling wholly satisfied in His arms regardless of the unknown. I cried tears at the beauty of what God was telling me in His scriptures relaying it all to Robbie. His piercing attention, affirming what I was learning, affirming how amazing the God we serve really is. This summer I studied the Sermon on the Mount with some amazingly Godly women back home. If there was one major lesson I found God bringing me back to over and over again between June and September, it was to constantly check the state of my heart. The Lord cannot be fooled, you guys. I can fool every human on this planet with whatever good deeds or smile I want to put out into the world, but at the end of the day if my heart is rotten and dripping with unrepented sin, then it means nothing. God wants our hearts, our attention; He’s so jealous for it all. The Bible tells us that we shouldn’t murder. So we feel great about ourselves when we’re following that commandment (I mean, you’d have to be a horrible person to break that commandment anyway! I mean, come on, people who murder were destined for hell anyway, right?). But then why does Jesus add onto that statement in Matthew 5:22 with, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment”? Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law. In fact, He came to respect it and love it but bring new meaning and clarity to it. Jesus expands the true meaning of the Law to “not murder” by putting us all humbly in our places. He wants us to see that just because we don’t physically end another person’s life doesn’t mean our hearts haven’t already committed murder. When we stay unreconciled to our friends, our parents, our people, Jesus hurts. When we condemn and judge, ridicule, slander, and call people names, we hurt our Lord. Even when you do it behind closed doors, He still sees the state your heart is in and how it keeps you from the full freedom in Christ to put away your pride, build bridges, love and be transformed by it. I’ve never thought more in any year about my own sin than in 2017. There were times in the past months that I got to start really seeing my heart for the “I’m a pretty good person when compared to most of the world” mask I’d put on it most days. I’m not proud of that. I started feeling pretty down in the dumps, as I dug up a lot of sin I’d gone months without even repenting of, thinking it didn’t really need to be addressed. Well I thought it didn’t need to be addressed because most of the world doesn’t see the sin I’m talking about. It’s sin I’d have to struggle through acknowledging that even though no one else sees it, Jesus does, because it is written all over my heart. And He’s who I should be the most concerned with seeing the cleanest heart I’m capable of. I was drowning in lack of trusting God (the perpetual cycle of social anxiety and panic I get when I’m doing pretty much anything with any person outside of the comfort of Robbie or Brett.) My heart was covered in a love for people’s flattery and approval instead of a need for the Lord’s. More afraid of human judgement than eternal God judgement. My heart was also sinking in the sin that said a month from leaving on this trip, “I don’t want to go on this adventure anymore– maybe I didn’t hear God correctly last year? I just want to live my cozy life with my familiar friends and our comfortable routine. I don’t know a lot of other people risking it all for the Gospel and they’re going to Heaven, right?” I started regularly repenting of these sins, for the first time in my life, and Robbie is working on it too. We will pray out loud together holding hands and I will repent and he will be there, next to me, squeezing my hand so tight at these words, almost to say, “I’m standing by your side, Chase. I’m sinful too, I need forgiveness too.” We don’t hide our sin from each other anymore either. We tell each other when we’re struggling to trust God or what we are having doubts about. It’s no secret we both need a Savior. The conversation is always open, and we are under no illusion that the other one’s heart is perfect and pure all the time. But we cling to this promise as we strive to repent and purify our hearts before our Great God: “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward Him.” 2 Chronicles 16:9

So this very lesson about our daily (and sometimes hourly) needed heart checks have influenced so much of this season we are in. We know that when the Holy Spirit leads, He could be speaking to a very distracted and self-centered child (that’s us, if you haven’t caught on. haha). So while in Tuscany, I started seeing the ways God was pulling me into a prayer and why it’s so important. In 2 Kings 20, King Hezekiah (who had been faithful to the Lord in his days) fell very ill. He was actually told that the Lord said he would not recover and to even prepare himself for death. Weeping bitterly– “Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD… ” asking God to heal him. And then something miraculous happened when God heard His loyal child weep and cry out in prayer: “Before Isaiah (a prophet and friend of Hezekiah’s) had left the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: Go back and tell Hezekiah, the ruler of my people, ‘This is what the Lord says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you’.” Are you understanding this?! God had made up His mind about Hezekiah’s health, but He heard the prayer of His faithful son, Hezekiah, and extended his life! Guys! I started seeing how prayer changes the heart of God! Our prayers matter!! God hears them and considers our requests for our good and His glory! THEN I read in Mark chapter 9 a story about a boy possessed by a demon. The father of the boy was desperate for help after the disciples were unable to heal his son. Then, Jesus WAS able to drive out the demon, healing the boy completely! Afterward, the disciples questioned why they were unable to accomplish it themselves. “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.'” ‭‭(Mark‬ ‭9:29‬) EVEN JESUS HAD TO PRAY in order to accomplish the work of God on earth. Prayer is our direct communication with our Creator! We are heard and Jesus loves to hear our voices call out to Him!

Here are some other verses on prayer I have had saved to my phone since the Spring time and early Summer when I was reading through these books that have weighed so heavily on me, we’ve been trying to put them into practice ever since: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.” ‭‭Job‬ ‭42:10‬ and one more! “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you.” 1 Samuel 12:23.

So with this passion and excitement for prayer growing rapidly inside of us, knowing God is waiting for our requests in order to work and move His will in us– and knowing how tied a clean and pure heart is to the power of that prayer, Robbie and I repented, prayed for so many friends, and family (Even specifically my brother and his wife and their new baby) while we were here this week. We had in depth discussions about the dream of owning a hip bagel and coffee shop (we seriously have always loved bagels) where we employ only refugees and we could use the shop as a space for me to teach them English out of. We could be their advocates and more importantly their friends. We dreamt about owning a home big enough for a couple extra bedrooms so we could let refugees stay as they got on their feet. We dreamt of owning a home where we actually had space for a kitchen table (you’d understand this desire if you saw our old apartment) where people different from us would come and feel welcome and truly be our friends, not just strangers. We get excited about the things that would make us the most uncomfortable but would bring us the most Jesus. We are praying the prayer that God would do whatever He wants with us. We don’t have any agendas– just open hearts to love and be used and be wholly surrendered to our King. That means even if it’s being called overseas forever.

If we aren’t willing to give up EVERYTHING, then we have the Gospel all wrong. We HAVE to love God more than we love anything else. We have to believe that God isn’t always the American dream. His plan for you (and me!!) may actually be to suffer, to live a little more like Jesus did, knowing we weren’t made for this place. Living truly surrendered may look like (to other Christians even) as insanity. But if you really believe in this God, like truly believe He created you and all your intricacies, put His spirit inside of you, and is redeeming broken people all across the world, then why is our passion for Him the equivalent of choosing where we’re going to eat for lunch? I’m not sure I could confidently say that I love God more than anything else on this earth– and (the kicker) actually mean it–until really recently. But we are learning each day (and failing so often) what it looks like to live surrendered– with full faith God is going to take our messy parts and make them whole, actually using them to be the parts that help redeem other people, and give them the hope that Heaven (and being face to face with Jesus) is way better than any comfort we may strive for here now.

Thanks for letting me spill. The Lord is good. He is transforming us and reminding us why we were so passionate about this journey in the first place. Thankful for the quietness of Tuscany where Robbie and I could laugh and pray and worship.