“A woman desperate to get married goes to see a fortune teller,” says Giovanni. We are sitting outside with his family in Tuscany, Italy, eating pasta with tomato sauce straight from the garden and squash flowers with lemon covered in cheese. Home made olive oil and wine is scattered all over the table.
Giovanni grins a beautiful smile that happens to be missing a few teeth. “The fortune teller says ‘my dear, I have good news for you! By the end of this week two men will ask you to marry them!’ ‘No, no, no!’ says the girl. It cannot be true! You are not a real fortune teller!’ ‘Why do you think it is not true, my dear?’ ‘Because I am so desperate that when the first one asks me to marry him, I will say yes!’” Giovanni is tickled by his own joke and laughs a big belly laugh, the kind that helps you remember that life is really not so bad after all. We all laugh with him, partly because of the joke and partly because of the way he responds to it.
Giovanni Ammirabile is a simple man. He makes olive oil and wine along with his son in law, all from their own back yard. He lives with his beautiful and wise wife Grazia, along with three of his grown children, his American son in law, and three of his grandchildren, a living arrangement practically unheard of in the States.
I knew when I met this family three years ago, the first time I was in Italy, that beneath their simple exterior is something extraordinary.
Twice a day, beautiful meals are made. These meals take time and thought, but Grazia and Cati their daughter know that all of that effort means that their family gets to sit together, laugh together, dream together. And that is worth all the effort in the world.
After a day of working hard the family and I all sit down with the Tuscan starry sky above our heads. Even though they barely know me, they treat me like they treat all of their many guests: as if I am family.
As we eat, in his trademark way, Giovanni weaves into his conversation jokes and stories, and even ends with the charming exclamation point of a hymn sung with his booming voice, right at the dinner table! But the common thread that weaves it all together are the truths he speaks about his Savior, the Savior he found in his twenties when he happened upon a Bible and realized “this book was written for me. God has written it for me.”
There are many times this week that I was touched and inspired, but I will mention one particular example to help you understand what I mean when I say that the Amirrabile family is extraordinary.
A lovely 28 year old Israeli woman who had just quit her ten years with the army to take a trip around the world has come to stay with us for one night. Her name is Hila. She has never met the Amirrabile family before, and she isn’t a Christian.
As we sit down for dinner, Giovanni and Grazia start telling her how much they love Israel. They have visited the country not so long ago. Soon they get into a lively conversation with her about the history and politics of Israel, something they have obviously studied. Suddenly the conversation turns towards God. Grazia says, “How could we not love Israel? It is the home of our Savior. He loves his home. We love Israel because we love him.” Then, Giovanni looks at Hila with deep sincerity and says, “My dear, one day, when Jesus comes to redeem the world, you and your people, you will forget all of these many years of suffering you went through. Because the Lord will reward you for your suffering. The Lord will come and cover you in beauty and you will realize that all of the pain was worth his love.” With tears in her eyes, Hila says, “I hope so.” Giovanni lovingly replies, “You don’t have to hope so. It is true. It will happen.”
By the end of the conversation, Hila practically has her mouth dropped open. She keeps repeating over and over “I didn’t know. I didn’t know.” “You didn’t know what?” “I didn’t know that there were people like you. I didn’t know that there were people who loved my country so much.” She is close to tears. “You are such special people,”she says.
“You know,” says Giovanni with his Italian accent, choosing his words carefully and speaking them slowly, “there is a reason we are special. If we did not have the Messiah you would run away from this place. But because of him, we have this. We love each other. We love our guests. We love our life”
It is perhaps the most beautiful example of “witnessing” that I have ever seen.
As a touring musician, I stay with a lot of families. There are few times that I say to myself “God, if I could choose a life to live, this is what I would choose.” But I have done that both of the times I have stayed with Amirrabiles. This time, though, I have decided to not let this desire turn into frustration towards God saying “I can’t have this life! I don’t have a family!” Instead, I am trying to learn from this family, to figure out how to take the lessons of their lives and translate it into my own, very different life.
This is the simplest equation I have found to live out what I have seen this week.
Trust with all of your heart that he is good.
Love the person standing in front of you.
I can do this whether I have a family or not. Whether I live in Italy or an African prison camp. It is my choice.
Maybe it is time that I stop looking at my circumstances and saying that my life will never be full because of the lot that has been given to me. To instead focus what I have control over….the way I love and am grateful for this life that has been given to me.
Maybe it is time for me to cook more often for guests that I invite over, take some cooking lessons knowing that food brings people together. To laugh big belly laughs. Maybe even to sing hymns at the dinner table!
Maybe it is time for me to choose to live a life extraordinary, no matter what my circumstances are.