I decided that if I wanted to know what was going on, I needed to ask more questions & ‘put myself’ in the know on what was happening – not leaving it up to chance that I would find out, which meant taking on a more active (vs. passive) role in our travels – something that was uncomfortable for me to do, esp. as I saw myself as a ‘sidekick’ on the trip, not as the leader, coordinator, or planner. But, I was nervous, & being out of my culture/context in the UK had been tough enough – now we were headed to a place where the primary language spoken wasn’t English; it was German. I had known that we’d be able to stagger through just about any situation in the UK with a modicum of difficulty (which we’d proved by surviving a little ‘run-in’ we had with a policeman at a roundabout.)
I had no idea or assurance that we’d be able to do the same in Germany. None of us spoke German, & I/we had very little idea of what was coming. A few questions helped me discover that our plans for Frankfurt & the Foursquare Europe conference had been made ‘tentatively,’ which meant:
Ouch. I should have known this might be the case, esp. because I knew that our leader’s life motto was “it’s all good.” (Truly, which is really funny looking back on the situation. In the middle of it, not so much ☺ …) It would have been prudent to have insisted on getting some details in advance of going; but now we were in it, so rather than get aggro, start accusing & assigning blame for the situation we were in, it was time to communicate – to get on the same page – to do what we could to prepare for the unknown. So we talked – & all took responsibility for helping us to navigate through the remainder of the trip until the point where we got home, me to my wife & 3 kids, all of whom I was missing more & more every second.
Our arrival in Frankfurt, traveling through customs, & getting our bags were all uneventful… it also brought us to the point of no return, the unknown. We headed into the main section of the terminal, which borders the baggage carousel room, & started walking. With no known destination. Just looking for somebody. I prayed. Hard.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy holding a sign with 1 word on it: ICHTHYS. From a missions video about Foursquare Germany that I’d seen in 1989, I knew that there was a American who’d planted a church in Germany, & that it was called ICHTHYS. I also knew that the word ICHTHYS was one that all kinds of churches & groups used – but I didn’t care. I grabbed my 2 traveling companions (as the other 2 mysterious travelers were… somewhere. No idea where they were for the entirety of our time in Germany,) & went over to the guy with the sign & asked: “Are you looking for some Americans to take to a Foursquare conference?” He was. YES! The elation I felt at that moment was indescribable. There was a tangible sense of encouragement that swept over me, a reminder from God that He was with us. That He was answering our prayers. And through all of the messed up, nebulous travel plans & snafu, He was in the middle of it, with us. With me. Yay. I hugged the guy, which I’m sure must have freaked him out.
He took us on a series of trains. We changed 3 or 4 times, & then he told us we’d have about an hour to get to our destination: Fulda. A-ha. While my other traveling companions talked happily amongst themselves, I pumped our guide for info, & asked him everything that I could think of. It turned out that the guy was just going to be our guide to the conference; he wasn’t staying, & knew nothing about what was happening, other than he was to deliver us to the conference center, & that the only people at the conference center (aka: a hostel) would be people who were attending the conference. Ahhh. Nice. I allowed myself to let down, & noticed that I’d been on edge for as long as I could remember. For the first time in days, I knew rest & a bit of peace.
The train station in Fulda was only a short walk (translation: a mile or 2) from the hostel – I can remember walking up the hill towards the hostel, just as twilight was settling in. It was beautiful… & there were small groups of people hanging around outside. And they were smoking. Chain-smoking. Almost all of them had a beer or a drink in their hand. As I made my way inside, I saw the main meeting room, & it was full of people, many of them speaking English (because of the multitude of nations represented, the main language used between people of other nations was English. Yes!)
All around the room, the clusters of people were engaged in deep talks. And many of them were drinking too. I can remember thinking, “I thought that everyone here was here for the conference… hmm. Guess not.” In retrospect, it cracks me up, not because I was mortified at being around people who were drinking, or because I had something personally against drinking; its just that my experience with Christians & the church was that no one drank even the smallest amount of alcohol or smoked in public… esp. not pastors.
After we found somebody to help us get registered, & I found the room where I’d be sleeping, I went down to the main meeting room to mingle. And to see if I could find some of the other attendees for the conference. I found the lady who registered us & asked her if she could tell me where the rest of the people for the Foursquare Europe conference were? She looked at me, puzzled, & waved her hand around as if to say, “they’re all here, all around. You’re in it.”
I laughed, the kind of laugh that comes deep from within. It was my response to the very real ‘culture shock’ that I was experiencing firsthand. I laughed because I was being confronted with a situation so different from my past ‘church’ experiences… different from everything I’d been taught & everything I’d learned by observation about what real holiness & righteousness was… here were men & women that obviously loved God & were giving their lives in the context of pastoring… & they were also drinking beer & wine, in public even. I laughed because in that moment, I was hit with the realization that much of my experience with God/Christianity in the US had had an American cultural basis & bias… which was something that I’d sensed & been wrestling through for years.
Over the years, I’d observed that a large chunk of the American Christian world believed that drinking of any sort was the kind of thing that people needed to be delivered from… for many, 1 beer was at the very least a gateway to all sorts of bondage & trouble for the ‘drinker,’ & at most was a stumbling block being placed in the way of others, tripping them up with a ‘false sense of freedom.’ I knew of people on staff at churches & attending Bible colleges, that had to sign pledges saying they wouldn’t drink even a little.
I’d read the Bible & knew, deep down, that drinking beer, wine, etc. wasn’t the real issue & didn’t make someone more or less holy – & that the real issue was with a lifestyle of drunkenness. (If you’re brave &/or a glutton for punishment, you can read a series of blogs I wrote on the topic of Christians & alcohol HERE.) I also knew that, at home, in my city, I felt it was ok for me to drink beer (didn’t like wine at that point,) but also ‘knew’ that I was supposed to keep it quiet, & that many, many were against it. I wasn’t supposed to talk about it, or drink where people might see me doing it, & ‘be caused to stumble.’
But in a moment, I felt a freedom, I felt a burden lift – & knew that if I was going to be authentic, be real, then I would be the same person all the time. Contending for freedom (NOTE: not being ‘pro-alcohol’, which I have been accused of, but that’s for another story,) & also not submitting to a yoke of slavery hidden by self-righteous religiousness.
I laughed because I felt the presence of the LORD. And a joy. And a renewed perspective on me, my life, & the journey I was on. And I knew that I was glad that I was in Germany. And that God, & the kingdom of God were bigger & ‘more real’ than I’d ever imagined.