Paris, the City of Lights? (Part II)

Even on the first day I was in Paris, I knew it wasn’t the City of Lights it was boasted to be.

Culture paints the city so romantically: the beautiful Eiffel Tower, the romantic cuisine and the gorgeous Seine River, among other things. And those perceptions aren’t inaccurate — there just such a small picture of the larger city.

The Eiffel Tower gives off the most light in the city.

The Eiffel Tower gives off the most light in the city.

Walk several blocks away from the Louvre, and you’ll see homeless people begging for money, begging for attention. Walk up the steps to the famed Sacre Ceour and you’ll find immigrants from West Africa with rough, war-torn pasts scamming people for money to find a way to provide for themselves and their families.

Even in the so called “light” of the city, there’s a mask painted over the real issues. You see, the recent terrorist attacks weren’t a chance event. It’s been looming for some time. There’s a clear divide in the city between French and immigrant, between the “beautiful” and the “forgotten”. But even the romanticized parts of the city aren’t without flaw.

When I went to a local creperie, the restaurant was pretty empty. I tried to engage the owner in conversation because she seemed lonely. After I ordered, and she was about to walk away, I said, “Vous appelez-vous? (What’s your name?)”. She turned to me, dumfounded, and said “Quoi? (What?)”. I repeated myself and she said “Moi?”.

It was clear she had never really been asked this question. Nobody had ever cared to engage her in conversation, to ask for her name.

She smiled slightly, and shyly responded “Alexandra”.

“Dieu vous bendice (God bless you)” I told her as I paid and left.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Because the French culture has become so calculated, secular and politically correct, it’s shut out passion, compassion and the true light.

The city lit up at night on the Seine.

The city lit up at night on the Seine.

It had it once, and I believe the city is not without hope. But something needs to ignite the light.

On my last night in Paris, I was headed to do some shopping on the Champs Elysees. However, before boarding the second train, I felt that I should get off at a completely different stop. I couldn’t explain why.

I was walking around for a while and I saw a group of people standing around in a circle, and I knew that they were Christians. I stuck around to see what they were doing, and they were praying for a homeless man who had approached them. I stood by awkwardly, wondering if I should approach them. I knew I had to.

“Excusez moi, êtes-vous christiens? (Excuse me, are you Christian?)”. “Oui,” they responded.

It turns out they are from Hillsong Paris — which was crazy, because when I was in London I went to Hillsong London and they told me that I should try to hook up with the church in Paris. We got to talk and hang out for a while, and they told me more about the church and the city.

Hillsong London serves around 2,000 people for 5 services!

Hillsong London serves around 2,000 people for 5 services!

They have expanded a lot — now they offer five services and a variety of outreach for the city, including ministries for the homeless. I knew when I saw them that these people were the true light of the city.

The terror won’t stop in Paris or across Europe until the people are presented with true light, true compassion, true hope. It’s not found in a building, it’s not found in social policies, and it’s not found in secular, humanist philosophies.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Paris needs more people to let their lights shine, that the Parisians may glorify our Father in heaven!

Paris, the City of Lights? (Part I)

Paris, with the beautiful Eiffel Tower lit up at night almost like a watch tower, has been dubbed “the city of lights”.

The Eiffel Tower sits lit up as a beacon in the night sky.

The Eiffel Tower sits lit up as a light tower in the night sky.

There are always people, always things happening. Yet, isn’t this name somewhat ironic? And it’s not just amidst the recent tragedy.

I was back for my second full day of experiencing Paris, after a full five days in London. And, don’t listen to what people tell you, these cities are altogether different!

As an American entering London, it seems like a cool American city with a very unique culture — the type of city you long to live in, almost like the adorable stepchild of San Francisco and New York.

Well, Paris is from an entirely different family. It’s a gorgeous family, but holistically different.

On the day I arrived, I met up with a group of Christians who are trying to make a difference in the city. Once a week, they hand out Christian literature outside a local market — a truly great resource for those who are interested! That’s the only problem with the French.

You know that time when there’s a guy trying to hand out stuff and you fake like you’re getting a phone call and you have to pick up just so he won’t talk to you? The French don’t have to fake anything. “No! No! Don’t give me that,” some of them say, prancing away.

Blunt and to the point. While they don’t really like talking with strangers, or see why such an idea even merits consideration, with a culture that’s so matter-of-fact, sometimes a good, authentic conversation is soothing.

When we were handing out literature, a Romanian woman came up to us and started shouting in French, “Merci! Merci pour faire le travail de Dieu! (Thank you for doing the work of God)!” We went on to talk with her for a while and I prayed for her, her family and her life. She was very appreciative and it was a huge encouragement to us! It’s not often that you encounter people in Paris who love God, much less even care to know if he exists!

After about 15 minutes of people passing by uninterested, one guy passed by and said, “No, I don’t believe in any of that…” as he proceeded to stand there, waiting to hear what I would say. “That’s okay. What’s your name?”

A simple question led to a 10 minute conversation where he opened up about his background and his beliefs. He was confirmed in the Catholic church, but soon discovered a lot of the corruption and abuse of money. I could see why he was so confused and said he no longer believed. “That’s people though, not God,” I told him. “People may be deceitful and selfish, but that is not the way of God! He is real, I know this to be true, and I pray that he would work in your life!”

“Okay…thank you,” he said, shaking my hand and walking away.

The French people may say they’re not interested in talking about God, but it’s because of things like this. They don’t really know what they’re saying no to! Heck, if it was about old Catholic traditions and Sunday mass and no relationship, I would say no too!

Yet, their hearts are crying out for something more, they just don’t think God is the answer!

“If God is real, then he’s not active in our lives,” said one Parisian.

I approached several of homeless men throughout my day, and one of them really affirmed this. He was asking for money to help feed his children. Sadly, I actually didn’t have any money on me! But I thought of Acts 3 where Peter had nothing, but what he had (the hope of Christ) he gave him.

I told him I didn’t have any money, but I wanted to talk to him, get to know him and pray for him.

His name is Peter and he lost his job. He has a little boy and needs money to provide for him. Just another person, like you or I, who has been slighted by the world and is in need of help. But more than financial help, he needed a friend, a human being who cared about him.

“Thanks for stopping,” he said. “Sometimes it’s better than money, you know, to talk to someone. Thank you!”

The French people don’t care to stop for homeless people. Don’t care to talk to strangers. The culture is individualist to the core, and secularist in its soul. So when they encounter true love, true light, sometimes they don’t know how to react.

I scaled the steep steps up to Sacre Coeur, a beautiful Catholic Cathedral that’s been a beacon of light for 125 years. As I stood on the church steps and looked out onto the city, all I could think about was the darkness.

The light shines so clearly in the darkness. Are we in focus enough to realize what the light is?

The view of the city lights in the darkness.

“City of Lights? How ironic!” I said to myself. The dimly lit buildings and street lights offered a minuscule light source, but the Eiffel Tower was the only real source. “Where is the light of the city?”

Without hope and compassion, the light is gone. And in the midst of terrorism, racism and secularism, the city is crying out for true light. Where’s it going to come from?

Stay tuned for Part II.

Lost in London

I wasn’t about to be that classic tourist, camera around the neck, map hovering in front of his face, asking everyone and their mother where Buckingham Palace was. Nope!

Yet, I was lost. And the next day. And the day after that.

After walking for quite some time, I finally found Buckingham Palace!

After walking for quite some time, I finally found Buckingham Palace!

Luckily, London has these handy stands with a map of where you are with major streets and landmarks. And it seems that the locals can sense this lostness from a block away; they don’t always help you, but some do.

Thursday, I ended up wandering through a local hospital. Don’t worry, I was fine. Directional dyslexia doesn’t require medical attention. Friday, I ended up getting off at the wrong stop and walking for over an hour. Yesterday, I showed up 15 minutes late to the first church service, and 20 minutes late to the night service. Today, I showed up 20 minutes late to a meeting.

The church service I was 15 minutes late to, with more than 2,000 in attendance!

The church service I was 15 minutes late to, with more than 2,000 in attendance!

There’s something about whenever I travel where things just seem to go wrong. Flights get cancelled, buses get delayed and directions take you to the wrong place. Last night, I watched 15 buses pass by as I waited for about 45 minutes until the right one finally came.

I’ve found myself get pretty frustrated — especially with no cell service or wifi available. I’m alone. I’m somewhat helpless, although I don’t like to admit it. But God has used it every time, to transform my worries into worship and give me a clean heart.

Last night, as I was waiting for the bus to come, wondering if I would have to lug my bag 4 miles to my destination, my heart changed and I just started laughing hysterically. My heart changed from frustration to fascination with what God was doing! Then, I started singing “Holy Spirit” by Jesus Culture as a prayer over the city, that He would come and transform lives.

Watching the cars and buses go by in Late Night London.

Watching the cars and buses go by in Late Night London.

Sure, I’m lost consistently everyday when I’m here. But I’m not the only one, and there’s far worse lostness here. I’ve met homeless people, immigrants and locals and in a sense, most of the people are lost with what really counts in life.

The businessman on the tube may know where the train is going, but will success bring him to his true destination? The immigrant may know the daily walk to her shop down the street, but will financial stability bring her lasting life? And the homeless man may know the street corners where he gets the most money, but where does he need to go for joy?

Sure, if I get lost I waste 30 minutes. But if someone lives their entire life for something that leads them in the wrong direction they waste 30 years…or more! London offers these various tantalizing directions, but they don’t bring you to the right destination. No wonder I’ve continued to get lost here!

The London Eye directs people to find joy in attractions, entertainment.

The London Eye directs people to find joy in attractions, entertainment.

It’s only when you’re lost and humbled, that you realize you need help to find the way. But when you think you’re found and you’re truly not…that’s when you’re truly lost!

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found.” — John Newton

Lollygagging with Londoners

The stoic guardsman outside Buckingham Palace.

The picturesque double-decker tourist buses.

The red tele booths that beckon new callers.

It’s all a bit romantic, and quite unrealistic, really. Of course, the media is going to fluff everything up a bit, and paint a picture of a scene quite different from reality. But what it misses out on is the real heart of London — the people.

This creative bridge is only open to people crossing the River Thames.

This creative bridge is only open to people crossing the River Thames.

There’s the friendly university student interested in world cultures. The aspiring businessman on the tube in his trench coat. The two Brits at the pub having a laugh. And the homeless man that roams the street, looking for a little conversation as much as anything else.

Riding on the Tube in London, you quickly realize that people don’t really talk to one another. They read. They check Emails. But talk? Especially not to strangers.

Yet my first Tube ride I struck a conversation with a friendly businessman who was off to an interview at a big firm. He asked me about America and was interested in what I was doing in London, what my impressions were. It may have been a quick one, but he offered his full attention and courtesy.

On my second Tube ride, I began scribbling down some notes about the culture and the people. A young black woman eyed over my shoulder, and when I got off to tour Hyde Park, she followed me off and started to pick my brain about culture.

“What do you think about London? Are there any good books you would recommend?”

The London Eye, a big tourist attraction, sits on the bank of the River Thames.

The London Eye, a big tourist attraction, sits on the bank of the River Thames.

The eager learner and avid reader, she was fascinated by all things that make the world go round. We began talking about religion and spirituality — typically somewhat taboo in London — and she really opened up.

“You know, I don’t really know what I believe. There’s so much out there, I really want to learn more.”

Then, there were the two Brits at the pub who openly invited me into their conversation. We talked of football, culture, jobs, religion. It felt like good friends having open conversation about life!

Heck, they even offered to buy me a drink!

The famous "Big Ben" watchtower peers over the Westminster borough.

The famous “Big Ben” watchtower peers over the Westminster borough.

And lastly, the homeless men that roam the streets, who are not so much begging for money as they were begging for attention, for someone, not something. I stopped a few times to give some money and have a conversation. They were very open and seemed absolutely blessed by our small one-minute conversation and the occasional prayer or “God Bless”. Their eyes perked up and a smile cracked across their worn lips, “Well thanks mate, you too!”

The culture may be vastly different, but the same principles of humanity apply. People want to be noticed, cared for, appreciated, loved.

That’s the beauty of London that I’ve seen. It far surpasses the Gothic towers, the immaculate bridges and the spacious parks. It’s the kind of beauty that a camera can’t capture, because it’s living.

The bright sun site colorfully over the horizon of Westminster.

The bright sun site colorfully over the horizon of Westminster.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Paris

I arrived on the ugliest day in Parisian history in over half a century — three armed gunmen attacked a small, liberal-leaning newspaper for their dealings with the prophet Muhammad. It was an ugly, sad day in the city of love.

Yet, the entire day I traversed the city, these facts were completely unknown to me. I checked into my hostel and was ready to hit the city. I was in Paris! My gosh — I’ve only dreamed of so much.

I talked with the hostel attendant for quite some time — learned about his family background, his interests, ignoring the news in the background, presumably discussing the horrific shootings that happened a few hours earlier.

When I left the hostel, I traveled the 2-mile route to the Notre Dame and I knew something was different. There was a sense of hopelessness and loss in the air — but I didn’t know where it was coming from! I stopped by and talked to a few homeless people, gave them a few euros and gave them a pamphlet in French about hope in Christ. For when there wasn’t hope, then there was.

The walk to the Notre Dame boasts beautiful architecture, cute shops and nice scenery.

The walk to the Notre Dame boasts beautiful architecture, cute shops and nice scenery.

Then I passed a group of over 100, some of whom shook signs up and down reading, “Je suis Charlie”. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it had something to do with the air of hopelessness I was feeling. Throughout the afternoon, I just kept feeling called to pray, to pour my heart out over the city. My heart-felt prayers filled the air around me.

When I finally got the Notre Dame, the atmosphere changed. I was awestruck — like, in the real sense, not the way in which it’s overused. Dumbfounded. I walked inside and saw the beautiful sanctuary. “How can you not see this is about GOD himself?” I asked myself. It was beautiful, and it glorifies the One, True God! It was so incredible I started crying! I sat in the pews and continued to just pray over the hopelessness that I felt earlier.

The beautiful Notre Dame de Paris and the Christmas Tree.

The beautiful Notre Dame de Paris and the Christmas Tree.

Then, I made my way to the Louvre. As I walked through the city, the atmosphere of oppression reigned. But when I escaped into the depths of the glass pyramid, it dissipated. Through the beauty of ancient sculptures, famed paintings and the cultural immersion of languages and cultures, hope again was amidst us. The paintings, many of which featured the work and life of Christ, restored my hope and peace and I yet again found myself speechless.

“Look what he did for us up on the cross!” I would think. “Yet, he’s still alive! He’s living even today!”

The Louvre has three wings full of precious, famous paintings, like the Mona Lisa.

The Louvre has three wings full of precious, famous paintings, like the Mona Lisa.

Then, I made my last journey to the famed Eiffel Tower. I saw it from some distance away and thought, “huh, I thought it would be bigger.” Well, that was when I was still 30 minutes away! Once I finally got up close and personally, it towered over me like a giant. The tower that reigns over Paris, over France, reminding them of the rebellion, of their freedom.

And that’s where it hit me. The Notre Dame. The paintings in the Louvre. They could be about God, they should be, but they’re not. They’re about architecture. They’re about artistic prowess and beauty. And the Eiffel Tower isn’t like the church steeples that hope to display God’s glory in the highest. It’s there to display the glory of France, and the supposed freedom found in government.

The Eiffel Tower sits lit up as a beacon in the night sky.

The Eiffel Tower sits lit up as a beacon in the night sky.

There’s a reason that when I stepped outside I felt the oppression in the air. It wasn’t because of the police sirens, or the protests. When I woke up the next morning to texts and emails repeating the refrain, “please tell me you’re okay,” and then checked the news a shock went down my bones. I couldn’t believe it. I almost started to cry again, but this time not out of beauty. I had seen the good and the bad of the city, but this was ugly. Real ugly.

If liberty and freedom are found in a government or a political philosophy, then they’re bound to be shaken. And on January 7, France’s liberty and freedom were shaken. You could feel it in the air.

But what if we had a liberty, a freedom, a peace that couldn’t be shaken? What if, the beauty didn’t end at the church building or the paintings? What if these were only earthly representations of a higher, heavenly hope?

The light shines so clearly in the darkness. Are we in focus enough to realize what the light is?

The light shines so clearly in the darkness. Are we in focus enough to realize what the light is?

I’m banking my life on it!

Remembering Russia

When we left Russia, five of our closest Russian friends brought us to the airport. Saying goodbye was tough. We didn’t want to leave, and they didn’t want us to either.

And as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t promise I would be back. I pray that I would be able to return…but I don’t know what my life has in store!

My solace was that these memories and these friendships will last with us forever. And for many of our friends there, we can have peace in the fact that we get to spend eternity with them when we are reunited with Christ!

Until then, we hold onto those memories. So our team leader, Chip Cowsert, made us a video to help us remember what God did in Russia!

Part Three: Don’t Worry, Live on Purpose

Sure, it might sound corny: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” I thought so too.

I mean, so many people say it wihtout meaning, without passion: “Don’t worry, it’ll be okay,” or “Just be happy — as long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”

One thing about our generation is that we are skeptical. “Well, why is it going to be okay?” “How can I just ‘be happy’ if I feel miserable?”

We have reason to be skeptical of a theme like this. And that’s why it’s so perfect.

As I’ve reflected on our time at English camp in Russia, I’m amazed at how much fun we had. We sang, danced, played games and built lasting friendships. I’ve gotten to share stories and memories from camp with friends and family, hardly able to hold back smiles and laughter.

But if it was just a fun time, it would be kind of disappointing. A fun week is great, but we’ve got another 51 weeks in the year often times where we do things that aren’t fun. So how can we be happy during that time?

The campers started to address this when we left camp. “I don’t want you guys to go!” they exclaimed. “We’ve had so much fun and we don’t want it to end!”

I didn’t want it to end either! Yet, I knew it had to end. So then what was my comfort? That my joy didn’t have to be dependent upon my life’s events and the people around.

On the last night of camp, we got to talk about our life purpose — why we’re here on this planet and what we’re supposed to do in this life. So much of Western culture tells us that what makes us the happiest is pleasing ourselves. 

Here’s the radical part — the part that makes our somewhat corny theme all come together. That’s not what God says brings us joy. It’s not our pleasure, our events, or even our friends and family. The thing that makes us the happiest is seeing the glory and majesty of our Creator! 

“You have made known to me the path of life; in your presence, there is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

On the last night of camp, I got to share a story, a story of a boy who worried so often. When fun times would end, he would get sad. Every Sunday, he would lay awake at night beause he didn’t want to go to school.

But something changed. He met people who had true joy. It didn’t waver when they had school, or when they stopped doing fun activities. It remained. And it helped them actually love other peole and care for them, asking for nothing in return.

He wanted this joy, this worry-free life. So he decided to investigate the hope that impacted those around him.

This was my story and I got the privilege of sharing this with all the campers. To me at least, the camp theme isn’t corny — it’s what brings me hope daily.

When I have to leave my friends, I don’t have to worry. I’ll be reunited with many of them again! When the fun times end, the God of joy follows me wherever I go. And when I’m faced with death, like we all will be, I don’t have to fear — I’ll be reunited with my Creator for eternity!

That’s the only reason I can live without worry and be happy. That’s the only reason such words can carry true meaning instead of falling to the side, lifeless. It gives me purpose. It gives me life.

That’s my prayer and hope for my fellow campers. That these words “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” would carry true meaning in their hearts. That they would live on purpose, too!