Europe through the Back Door

Maastricht Musings is a series of posts written while I study abroad for 11 weeks this summer in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Some will dabble deep into theological truths; others will offer comic relief, but hopefully all will offer entertaining and informative glimpses into Europe.

The city of Florence is a tourist’s dream. Cafés spill out into the cobblestone streets, and the Arno River cuts through the heart of the city. Tuscan hills dotted with vineyards line the horizon. Florence means colors, culture, and those cream-colored Italian stucco buildings with the orange-tiled roofs. It’s picturesque, famous, and idyllic, and because of that, you get to enjoy the relatively small Italian city with 50,000 other tourists.

I’m quickly figuring out that the real gems of this continent are not where the crowds are. The best cities, restaurants, and activities are hidden. They’re off the beaten path. They’re through the back door. So when I had a free Saturday morning in Florence, I set off to find one of these gems.

The crowds were already thick, and my resolve to escape them increased as I dodged street vendors and tour groups in the big city square. I walked north away from the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio and everything else that the city was famous for. My destination was the Alinari Bike Rental shop. I ducked into a tiny Italian groceria and snagged a baguette and some salami, threw the groceries in my backpack, and headed on towards the bike shop.

The place was hard to find, nestled in the less popular Northern part of the city on Guelfa Avenue. I negotiated prices for a few minutes at the counter and then walked over to my machine. A shiny new white Vespa like they drive in the Italian movies, White Lightning was mine for the next three hours.


“Do you have experience on one of these?” The shop owner asked me. “Of course,” I replied, failing to mention that I had only driven a friend’s scooter down the block one time. I struggled to get White Lightning to start, and he gave me a skeptical look. I smiled back and twisted the throttle, zooming away in the type of dramatic exit that only an underpowered 50cc Vespa named White Lightning can make.

Driving through the city was a lot like Mario Kart with higher stakes. I dodged traffic and tried to do what the other Vespas were doing. White Lightning had more giddy-up than I was expecting, and I hit 40 km/h effortlessly. I glided past the city’s fountains and squares. Before long, I had left the hordes of tourists and crowded city streets behind and was cruising up the Tuscan hills, passing small villages every few kilometers.

White Lightning struggled a little bit on the hills, and during the steep inclines, we slowed to a steady crawl. After half an hour of climbing, I rode past a viewpoint overlooking the city. The massive Duomo Church was a tiny orange smudge on the landscape from up here. This was Italy. This was vacation. This was Europe through the back door.


I stopped in a town of Fiesole and ate my picnic lunch in their bustling town square. I checked my watch: one more hour to explore. I started my descent back down the hillside, and topped out at 60 km/h on the way down (that was the moment when White Lightning got his name). I hugged the Eastern outskirts of the city and headed in the general direction of Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous overlook on the South side of the city. Following the Italian signs, I made it up to the Piazzale. The tourists head up to the spot en masse for the sunset, but during early afternoon, it was quiet and serene.

I glanced down at my watch, twenty minutes to get back. I crossed the Arno, and set out back for the North side. At some point, I made a wrong turn and found myself on a highway with way too many lanes for White Lightning to handle. Ducking off at the nearest exit, I asked an amiable Italian for directions. He pointed to our destination on the map, and five minutes later, the storefront was on our right. I’m not sure if the shop worker or myself was more surprised that I showed up on time. I handed over the keys, and starting walking back to the hostel. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the long line slowly snaking towards the entrance to the Duomo. Don’t they know about the back door?


I don’t want to over-spiritualize these posts on my travels. Sometimes a vespa ride is just a vespa ride, and there’s no deeper, underlying spiritual truth. But when I think about Europe through the back door, about how the real treasures lie off the wide and crowded road, the words of Jesus are just too applicable to leave out.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. —Matthew 7:13



Jesus—The Biggest Loser

I love winning. In school or ZZZ or being a Community Leader in Penland, I want to win.  I want to be great at the things I do. My soul thirsts for success. I want to be productive. I want to get out of something what I put into it. I want people to validate the things that I’m doing. I want A’s on the top of the tests that I take. I want my intramural team to take home some hardware.

This carries over into my relationships. Every relationship that I pour into, I want dividends from. I want to see positive change in the people I invest in. I want people to thank me. I want to be loved back. When I get a compliment or a thank you or I see somebody grow, I’m winning.

But here’s what I’m learning as I delve deeper into the story of Jesus.

Following Jesus involves a lot more losing than winning. 

Jesus spent his entire life losing in every earthly way. In terms of his public image, Jesus was always losing. He didn’t write any books. He worked as a humble carpenter. Whenever He garnered a big following, He’d either leave the village or say something weird like “if you want to follow me, drink my blood and eat my flesh.”

Relationally, Jesus also lost. He was always pouring into His disciples, and the return on that investment for much of His life hovered around zero. These people who Jesus loved on weren’t very smart or cool or loyal to the end. It wasn’t a winning team.

Jesus even taught people how to lose. Here are some of his best pointers on losing:

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. Mark 8:35

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matt. 5:38-42

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Matt. 5:43-44

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. Matt. 6:19-20

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Mark 5:11

But He saved His greatest loss for last.

Jesus went to the cross alone. Defeat. Humiliation. Death. Pain. He lived a perfect and blameless life and then lost. I know the story doesn’t end there, but it happened. He lost.

Jesus spent his whole life loving on the people group who would end up nailing him to a tree. 

At the center of the Gospel is the paradox of the cross. Yes, chalk the cross up in the loss column. Write a big “L” on the score card. The Son of God came to Earth to redeem mankind and ended up hanging up on a cross, pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.

We forget that He’s our example. He’s our role model. Those who follow Christ are called to lose just like He did. Today. Tomorrow. Every day until Christ who is our life appears, and we will also appear with him in Glory(Col. 3:4), we’re called to lose.

No, the story doesn’t end there. Jesus rose again and defeated the grave, but not until after He lost everything. That’s our Savior and that’s the Gospel. The disciple of Christ gets everything when they give everything up.  The follower of Jesus only wins when he or she loses.

The cross cannot be defeated because it is defeat. — GK Chesterton

How do we lose, though? What does it look like, other than handing our  enemies some nails, a couple of 2X4’s, and laying down? What’s losing our lives for the sake of the Gospel look like at Baylor University, or anywhere other than first century Palestine? Losing isn’t just something we’re called to talk about, so here are some losing strategies that I try (and often fail) to practice:

1. Do the most for the people around you. In order to love recklessly and boldly, not cautiously and thriftily, be willing to lose your time and your money.

2. Don’t ignore the “least of these”. Whether it’s a homeless person or that weird kid in class, lose your pride and love them like Christ loved you.Take what Jesus says about “the least of these” seriously. Lose the fear and the stereotypes.