Friday, August 22, 2008

Points of History (Berlin, III)

The Brandenburg Gate was a sign of national pride and strength. The main central gate was reserved only for the coaches of the Kaiser. After WWII when the city of Berlin was divided into four different sections (American, British, French, and Soviet), the gate served as the border between the West and East. The Russians, Europeans, and Americans agreed that the gate must be repaired and reopened after suffering massive damage during the bombing of Berlin. New statues were ordered repairs were done by both sides. However, before the gate could be unveiled, the Soviets began work on the Berlin Wall. Since the Gate officially belonged on the Soviet side but much too close to the allied side, it ended up in No Man’s Land, the area between the Berlin Wall and another, smaller wall that kept the Eastern Berliners (not jelly doughnuts as one famous U.S. President said) from trying to get to the Wall.

There was a cool Russian guy who sold visa stamps and post cards. I got a visa stamp from the American, British, French, and Soviet sides, as well West Germany and East Germany. Behind him were these two guys with the British and American flag. I asked, in French, where the French flag was, and they said they only spoke English and German. I thought this was strange since most Europeans speak at least three different languages and probably four or five. But oh well. I asked in English. They looked at me with a stupefied expression and pointed toward the French embassy as if they were shocked that I had spoken English. I asked them, since Western Berlin was originally split between the three countries, why they didn’t have a compatriot to represent the French. They answered, in halting English, that three people was too many. I finally figured out they weren’t actually American or British. In fact I don’t think they were even German. I’m pretty sure they were Turkish. Oh well. Makes for a cool photo, eh?

But I did find the French at Checkpoint Charlie, the main (only?) border passing between Eastern and Western Berlin. I was again pretty sure he wasn’t really French, but I didn't get a chance to ask him. Oh, and that American had some sort of foreign accent.

I’m pretty sure Checkpoint Charlie was the only checkpoint because, even though it was located in the American section, the signs were written in English, Russian, French, and German. Why French? It would have made more sense for them to use the French crossing if there had been one.

I love this picture of the four flags. Strange to me that neither German flag is included.

So that was my trip to Berlin, a city of rich but tragic history. And I see nothing but equal amounts of pain and tragedy for the city in the future. Though the city and the country have only be reunified for less than 20 years, Germany faces again losing its identify on two fronts: The EU and the massive amounts of immigration who bring, and are slowly replacing Christianity/Secularism/Atheism with, Islam. If Germany is still existing as a free independent democracy in 25 years it will be a miracle. Or it will be because they have, once again, had a bloody civil war.

Exploring Berlin (Berlin, II)

After my visit to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s house, I still had about ten hours before my train was to leave. I decided to explore a bit of the city. First I took a river boat and got a view of the center of the city. There’s an island in the middle of the main river of Berlin that has five different museums and little, if any, else. It’s called, appropriately enough, Museum Island.

This is the oldest chapel in Berlin.

The Reichstag is the building of the national parliament, the Baumstang (sp?). Also close by are the Chancellor’s offices, the Parliamentary library, and other national offices. I did actually go up into the glass globe later on. From the top you can see almost all of Berlin.

The golden dome is the rebuilt National Jewish Synagogue. This was an interesting photo to me with the smoke stack to the right and front of the Synagogue. As most know, the smoke stack was a horrifying symbol of Nazi murder and torture of the Jews.

The Protestant Saint (Berlin, I)

The Catholics have, quite literally, thousands of them. Evangelical Protestants are reticent to name people ‘saint’ for many reasons. The two most important reasons are, in my humble opinion, quite valid. They are: 1) The Bible calls all Christians ‘saints’. To give specific people this title excludes certain that are and, quite probably, has included some that are not. 2) When Catholics use the term ‘saint’, they really mean ‘demi-god’ who somehow makes intercession on behalf of mere men here on earth before God. A foundational belief that sets Protestants apart from Catholics is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. This makes praying to saints not only pointless and silly but idolatrous and sinful. As an aside, notice how the doctrine is called “priesthood of all believers”, not “high-priesthood of all believers”.

On both of these issues, as with 90% of other issues, I am in total agreement with the Protestant view. However, there does seem to be a need to differentiate great Christians heroes throughout Church history. These people live lives that are particularly instructional to Christians. They can be known for anything from performing a miracle to total devotion to God, from theological treatise to martyrdom. Some Catholic saints that Protestants all readily agree should be recognized on some level include: the Apostles, Mary, Valentine, Patrick, Augustine, Thomas à Kempis, and others.

Yet since the time of the Reformation, we Protestants don’t tend to raise people to this level. There are literally dozens of individuals from the Reformation period that would be called ‘saint’ if they had been on the other side of the conflict: William Tyndale, John Huss, Martin Luther, John Knox, Jean Calvin, Queen Elizabeth, etc. But there are also hundreds, possibly thousands, since the Reformation. People like Corrie ten Boom, Jim Elliot, Mary Slessor, William Carey, the Wesley brothers, and many others.

One staunch Protestant of whom even the Catholic Church has expressed approval was martyred in Nazi Germany during World War II. “The Protestant Saint” is not my own phrase. I read it sometime ago in some Catholic publication discussing the life, work, and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Most likely this is, at least partly, due to the failure on the part of the Catholic Church itself to resist Nazism, even while many Catholics did. Bonhoeffer helped to found one of the only official Protestant church movements in Europe, and the only in Germany to my knowledge, to refuse to cooperate with Nazism on almost every point.

But that isn’t all he did to deserve this title. He is, perhaps, best known for his theological and Christian living writings. This summer I read three of his books: Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible, The Cost of Discipleship, and Life Together. I found each to be a treasure trove full of gems waiting to be explored. Perhaps my favorite of the three is Life Together. ‘Favorite’ isn’t the correct word, as it took more than three months to finish the book because I could only read a few pages before having to put it down in shame and conviction. I realized, for the first time, how my view of Christian life, family, and friendship has been so incredibly twisted.

The Cost of Discipleship is easily the most controversial among Evangelicals but also the richest. It is true that Bonhoeffer flirts with, what sounds to some (including at times myself), blatant heresy. But he also lays the practicality of Christian life out in an uncompromising way. Sadly I think that these times he flirts with heretical language only serve to, in the minds of some, discredit what he has written. But there are many important things one must understand before passing judgement on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s orthodoxy: his stream of Christianity (a mix of Evangelicalism, Incarnationalism, Holiness, and Social Justice), his denomination (Lutheranism), his time, and the politics and environment of his country all contribute to a use of vocabulary that differs greatly from the way 21st century American Evangelicals tend to use them. It is important to remember that The Cost of Discipleship is talking solely about discipleship and victory in Christian life even when he uses the term “salvation".

That term, for Bonhoeffer, rarely means what we Evangelicals mean when we use the word. We of course mean eternal non-damnation and rewards in Heaven. Well, at least most of us do. This alone has done more to contribute to a total misunderstanding of Bonhoeffer’s works among American Christians than anything else. However, there are two other things that Christians of my generation won’t understand: 1) Bonhoeffer’s contact with Christian Liberalism in New York and Berlin that horrified him at the state of Christian theology and 2) the emergence of Nazism in Germany and, especially, the sympathy and aid it received in the German Lutheran Church. These two things influenced his writing and colored his writings in ways that we can't understand as 21st century Middle-Americans who have basically little contact with theological Liberalism.

But I’ve written over a page of explanation and haven’t gotten to my point! My trip to Berlin really had only purpose that made it impossible for me not to go: I wanted to visit the house of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I did make it, and, like visiting the Hiding Place in Holland, it was an extremely moving experience for me. This is the outside of his parent’s house in Berlin where he stayed whenever he was in the city:

The following pictures are from Bonhoeffer’s bedroom. To sit in his chair at his desk where he wrote some of his theological works and love letters, to look at the books in his library that must have played an important part in influencing his own writing, and even to see his wash basin and wardrobe meant something I can’t explain in words. My prayer was: “God, raise up a generation like this man! But if not a generation, raise up a few individuals who will preserve the name of Your Church when it is bent by being corrupted by the world.” For you see, our time is, in many ways, not that much unlike Bonhoeffer's. The Church must always be on the gaurd against becoming so embroiled in the world (politically, culturally, socially) that she loses her savor.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Paris Refreshment (France, III)

As I write this, I’m sitting in the train station in Sweden after having taken my second night train in 2 days and waiting for my connection to farther north. This night train, though, was a lot more successful than the first.

I left Le Chambon early on Wednesday morning and headed for Paris. I arrived by 13h00 and had arranged to meet up with some friends of mine at 17h15, so I had about four hours to hang around. I’ve been to Paris twice before and spent a lot of time walking across the city. If you know me, you know I’m not a big fan of big cities. They tend to have a lot of people and, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not a people person. Paris is better than most big cities, but it's still a big city.

This time, though, seemed to be fairly low on tourists compared to when I’ve been there before. After a delicious Parisian meal (for the record, I’ve never paid for a meal in France that I didn’t enjoy to the utmost, but then I don’t eat at the normal tourist places) that was, of course, more than I could possibly eat, I walked along the Seine and drank in the view (and the language!) for awhile before deciding to head toward Notre Dame. I had visited the famous church back in 2004, but there were a lot of people at the time, and I wanted to take another look. I approached the cathedral from the back. This let me walk through all the lovely parks surrounding it. Parks tend to be one thing out of many that the French are experts at. When I arrived at the front of the cathedral I discovered to my dismay that I couldn’t take my backpack in with me.

With no baggage check and nothing to do, I decided to head on toward Paris Nord, the station I was to leave from for Berlin. Since I still had a few hours, I decided to walk and drink in the sights. I met my friends one metro stop away from Paris Nord at a Starbucks (yes, they do have them in Paris). Holly came to France one month after my first visit to work with the mission group (CEF) I had done my summer-mission’s trip with. We met in 2006 when I went back to France and have been in contact via email for two years. She married the eldest son of the CEF national director in France right after I left in 2006. Our chat was too brief, but it was lovely to meet up with someone with whom I share a common language, country, religion, and world view. I can’t remember talking about anything particularly important in our chatting (except the French waitress who asked me what cologne I was wearing... awkward), but I do remember that I was incredibly refreshed afterwards. This is something that God has allowed me to experience several times in my stay in Europe so far: the refreshing fellowship of the Saints. First my friends in Holland, then my Northern Irish friends in Brussels, Mary, Peter, and Susan & Geoff in London, and Holly & Jean in France. Most of these people I would never have met if we all lived in the same country. Or we would have approached each other with suspicion, distrust, and our doctrinal divisions.

My time in Paris came all too quickly to an end as I boarded my train toward Berlin. The train was fully booked I had reserved my tickets too late to get a couchette (bed in shared compartment) or a sleeper. I was stuck in a tiny compartment with five other people. Two of them, a teenage boy and his mother, didn’t speak French, English, or German, but they did speak some language that sounded something like a cross between a dying frog and fingernails on a chalkboard. What they had been doing in France or how they managed to get around is beyond me. They were from somewhere in eastern Europe and kept their eyes lowered the whole time. Strange. The other people in my car were nice enough, but we were so cramped and tired that no one really talked a lot. I did end up having a nice long conversation in the corridor with a lovely Frenchman and his wife who were going to Berlin to visit their daughter. He didn’t speak any English so it was great for giving me one last stretch of my French skills. Seriously, I think my French improved more in four days in France than ten weeks in Belgium. It makes me wish I had been more assertive in going to Paris. But then I would have missed all the fun and people I met in Brussels.

So to you, my dear reader, I leave three closing thoughts: 1) The fellowship of the Saints is refreshing indeed, 2) if you want to learn a foreign language, go to the country of its origin, and 3) if you’re going to take an overnight train, make sure you get a couchette or sleeper.

French Hospitality (France, II)

Unlike my experience in England, my hotel experience in France was superb. This isn’t meant to be a diss on my English friends or an assertion that all French hotels are better than English; I have never stayed in an English hotel. Remember the staff at my hotel in England couldn’t even speak English (or French). I really consider it more of an Indian/Polish hotel in England instead of an English hotel. Not that I have anything against Indian/Polish hotels. The staff at my French hotel could not only speak French but spoke it slow and clear enough that I could understand almost perfectly. They also spoke some English to some degree, but I convinced them not to do so unless I absolutely could not figure out what they were trying to say.

I made my reservation via email after finding the hotel on the Internet (at the website for the Office de Tourism, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad!). They’ve been more than helpful in so many ways. As I’ve mentioned earlier, my computer’s wireless card wouldn’t read their wifi connection, so the Madame offered to let me use her personal computer at any time. Quite a difference from being told I have to pay to use the Internet for my “free” tourist information.

But the amazing thing is the price and what was included. I paid 35€ for a bedroom with shower and a perfect view of the lovely village. Included in that is a demi-pension, which means breakfast and one other meal. Breakfast is the normal French breakfast: coffee, bread, jelly, and butter. I have to admit the first day I was starving afterwards, but that was because I hadn’t had dinner the night before and didn’t order my breakfast correctly. The second morning I ordered chocolat (hot chocolate) instead of coffee and slathered my bread with the jam making sure I used it all. The chocolat came with a half-pint of steaming hot milk. Between the milk and using all the jam and butter, I was stuffed. Literally. I couldn’t think of eating another bite for several hours after eating breakfast that morning.

The best part though, is my other meal which I took at noon the first two days. The first day I was still starving from breakfast and was dissapointed at the one medium slice of pâté porc, salad, and four pieces of baguette. I hungrily devoured everything, including the bread, and began making plans to visit a restaurant after leaving. To my surprise, though I really shouldn’t have been, I was provided with another fork and steak knife when my dishes were cleared away. Soon I was brought my second course. One may remember my post on the French and their courses back on my dialogue about a Happy Meal from Brussels. I, unfortunately, had not remembered, or had at least thought it wouldn’t apply to a meal that cost only 5€ more than the room. I now looked at the beautiful array of chicken, mushrooms, au gratin potatoes, and fresh green beans that filled my plate, accompanied by another full basket of baguette, with a bit of remorse. Why had I eaten so much bread earlier? And why had I eaten every last bite? And how was I going to be able to eat all of this? Somehow I managed and, feeling a bit gorged, decided I needed to stay to digest for a moment before rushing out the door. To my amusement I was quickly brought a selection of cheeses. Of course, this being France, I had to at least taste each one and felt a tinge of remorse that I couldn’t finish two of them (the third wasn’t to my liking). But now I was beginning to get the hang of this and prepared myself for the fourth course. Sure enough some sort of delicious pear desert was placed before me when my cheeses were finally taken away. I sighed and dug in, wondering if one can literally eat enough to make one’s stomach explode. Finally I finished and placed my spoon back on the plate. I prepared myself mentally, refused the next course (coffee), and made a quick, embarrassed exit. But the lesson was learned, and I was now prepared.

Dinner my second day proved to be a much more enjoyable experience. The first course was a beautiful goat cheese and spinach tart accompanied by a fresh salad green and, of course, baguette. I ate only half a piece of bread with this course and restrained myself from finishing everything on the plate. The second course was an amazing slice of roast pork with onions, fresh carrots, and whole baby potatoes. Amazing. And I couldn’t stop myself from eating everything but the fat trimmings (which the French think are the best part, but I personally can't think of eating without feeling naseated). When asked about my cheese course I ordered fromage blanc not having a clue what it was other than, as the name suggestions, white cheese. It proved to be what looked like sour cream covered in thick cream accompanied by sugar.

My hostess had hardly left the room (fortunately all the other guests had already finished and departed the dining room as well), before I burst out laughing. I couldn’t stop thinking, “I’m eating sour cream with milk and sugar on it!” When my abs started hurting I starting thinking of my dear friend Krystalin who always had that effect on me as well. This, of course, only made me laugh harder because I was imagining her laughing at me eating sour cream with milk and sugar on it. I’m even laughing now as I’m writing this. Krystalin, if you’re reading this, first forgive me for spelling your name wrong and then tell me you would have laughed at my eating sour cream covered in milk and sugar. You’re probably laughing now anyway. But let me tell you, it's something completely different to be laughing uncontrollably in front of your computer and be laughing uncontrollably in a French dining room. I was concerned that someone would come in and think I was choking. Every time I took a bite I couldn’t help but chuckle again as I tried not to attract attention from the kitchen. That thought made me laugh even harder. Then I was concerned about really choking myself. I would probably be the only person who had ever killed himself on sour cream dowsed in milk and sugar. All I could see what Krystalin sitting across from me with her hand over her mouth and doubled up with not-so-concealed laughter. It was the funniest food I have ever eaten. I’m reminded of a corny AIO reference where someone says “food is funny” to which someone else responds “you put anything from the dairy section in front of me and I’m on the floor”. The line was supposed to be stupid, but now it actually makes a lot of sense to me.

But did I mention that it was delicious? Weird, I know, but it was. Maybe I’ll try it when I get back to the States. Maybe I’ll even invite Krystalin over for a bite. And someone will probably later discover our bodies, choked to death by sour cream with milk and sugar on it, but with big smiles and achy abs.

Dessert was next: fresh fruit. I was given a new knife and found myself in the awkward situation of trying to eat a whole pear with only a knife. In the end I simply cut it and used my hands. But not before I had enjoyed another ab-aching laugh and whispered a prayer of thanks that no one else was in the room. The meal ended with a nice demi-tasse of coffee, accompanied by another half-pint of steaming milk. I wasn’t quite sure if I was supposed to dump the coffee in the milk or try to drink enough coffee to put some milk in. But then the milk would have filled the cup at least four times by itself. In the end I drank a few sips, added some milk, drank half the cup, filled the cup with more milk, and then just left the rest of the milk.

The rest of my meals and stay in the hotel were excellent, and I would highly recommend the Hôtel de Verlay to anyone visiting Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.

Below are more pictures from around the town. I had so much fun walking around, talking to the natives (locals?), sun-bathing, and swimming at the little plage (beach).

The Boche Ball Stadium
The beach. It's actually one of the rivers that feeds the Loire and comes from the glaciers in the Alps. It was really cold. And clear, even though this picture makes it look dirty.
The railroad
The road
The town square. The fountain was quaint.

Chambon-sur-Lignon (France, I)

Sorry for the delay after England. I thought I should give you some time to digest and read all the little stories. Hope you enjoyed them! After I finished my internship in Brussels, I took a whirlwind tour of four other countries (France, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark). My adventures follow.

Saturday evening (26 July), after a long day of two trains and one bus, I arrived in the little village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the Haute Loire region of the South/Central part of France. This tiny village that my French professor had never heard of was the central part of a massive underground resistance movement during the Holocaust. The village barely had a population of 2,000 people in the early 1940’s, but they were somehow able to organize the rescue of over 5,000 Jews, mostly children, through connecting them to friends in Switzerland or simply housing them in the village and refusing to turn them in to the Vichy, and later German, officials.

On my way to the little village and during my first day I there I read the book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed about the history of the town. While the history is fascinating and moving, I don’t suggest the book at all. The author is a seemingly atheistic-Jew, or at the very least some strange blend of mystic, who also works as a professor of ethics somewhere. His last two chapters are absolute rot and nonsense as he is forced to admit that his ethical beliefs and worldview demands him to believe that what these people did was no more good than what Hitler did. Yet he does understand that this view simply doesn’t make any sense with any normal human being, so he gives some nonsense about the Chambonais being good because he and others feel them to be good. Nonsense and double talk. He, sadly, isn’t helped by the leader’s (André Trocmé) own apparent lack of theological conviction.

But the story is no less inspiring. God did a work here that no one can really fault or doubt. What drove the Protestant Chambonais to do what they did while their few Catholic brethren, and even other European Protestants, refused to get involved? I can’t say that I really know. Neither do they. Most of them, when asked years later why they had done what they did, simply responded that it had to be done. For them there wasn’t any other choice. They knew what was right and couldn’t fathom the idea of doing any less anymore than they could fathom they idea of turning in their own children to the Nazis. It was natural for them to give of themselves to protect helpless people.

At the risk of sounding terribly judgemental, I think this can probably be contributed, at least in some tiny way, to their Huguenot beliefs. The Catholics of the village didn’t help. For them it was a choice, as any action always had to be. Their choice was thus influenced by the risk to their own personal safety, their own dislike of the Jews, or whatever other reasons there might have been. To be sure, Catholics across France and other parts of Europe were instrumental in resisting Nazi oppression against Jews and others. But for the Catholic it was a choice. They made their decisions because they felt that doing what was right was ultimately more profitable than doing what was wrong. That’s where they differ from the Huguenots of Le Chambon. The Chambonais simply didn’t think about it. There was no option for them. It wasn’t a choice. Many Jews look back and thank their lucky stars that certain European Catholics made the right choice, but no one can do that for the Chambonais. This has important ramifications to the modern Evangelical church in the United States, indeed to any Church anywhere or anytime.

Enough history and talking. These are several pictures of important landmarks in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon:

Le Temple Protestant
Inside the Temple
A memorial plaque from Israel
The Presbytery