Out of Control

This week’s Memorial Day services and celebrations reminded me of my very first solo graveside service.  The first hint that I was not in control came as I pulled up to the grave site at our local National Cemetery.  Having been told that no military honors were planned, I knew I was in trouble when I saw military personnel across the road, standing at attention in full military regalia, including rifles.  I, not in any way a fan of firearms, decided to park a bit further down the road.  Just in case.

The next clue that I wasn’t in control was when a man in a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap approached the grieving family with the revelation that they (the VFW) were there to conduct the service.  OK, I said tFlags Galoreo myself, better take charge now or never.  Show this guy who’s in control.

I told the man I was the minister in charge, and asked what they had planned.  He told me that they had a 10-15 minute service and some presentations to make to the family.  I told myself, Self, you just have to go with the flow.  Lord, it’s in your hands.  Just please show me what to do.

The military honor guard carried the casket from the hearse to the open grave, then carefully and reverently folded the flag that had draped the casket.  A young soldier then clasped the triangular folded flag to his chest, arms crossed, and stood at attention, hardly blinking an eye, for the entire service.

By the time they had finished with these “preliminaries,” I was so choked up I could hardly speak.  Tears welled up in my eyes as I attempted to recite words of scripture without actually sobbing.  Lord, please let me get through this without crying.  I’m supposed to be in charge, you know.  After the meditation and a prayer, I pronounced the benediction, indicating the end of the Christian service.

On the Hill

The VFW men then made some very moving speeches about Jim’s service to his country, and presented Jim’s wife, Kathy, with the flag.  After a 21-gun-salute and the playing of Taps, where I almost lost it again, the man in charge asked me to pronounce a benediction.  What?  Was he asleep when I gave the benediction 15 minutes ago?

Yet the second benediction seemed a fitting end to the service, as I asked the Lord to bless and keep us all, to make His face to shine upon us, and be gracious to us, and give us peace.  In the end, you see, it was obvious that God was the one in control–not the VFW, and certainly not this novice minister who was just getting her feet wet.

And then there’s the story about the time a horse was running loose during the service in a rural Catholic cemetery . . .

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REFINER’S FIRE

Many of us feel that we are constantly being hammered by the challenges of life on this earth. One difficulty or tragedy comes, then another, and still another. Poor health, rebellious children, unemployment, aging parents, crumbling house, dying spouse. You name it, it happens. And sometimes it seems like these struggles come all together, or one right after another, until we’re not sure we can take any more. And we wonder where God is in all this.

Malachi 3:3 says: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” This verse puzzled some women in a Bible study and they wondered what this statement meant about the character and nature of God. One of the women offered to find out the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next meeting.

That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work. She didn’t mention anything about the reason for her interest, beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver.

As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest, to burn away all the impurities.

Fire

The woman thought about God allowing us to remain in such a hot spot. Then she thought again about the verse that says, “He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.” She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined.

The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he also had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.

The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s when I can see my image in it.”

Now while this makes a great story, it’s not very good theology. God does not wish us to suffer or cause us to suffer. Nevertheless, “stuff” does happen in a world that is not perfect. And through all that “stuff,” we can be assured that God is with us through it all. God will allow and enable us to grow and learn, through our difficulties.

So, when we feel the heat of the fire, we need to remember that God is sitting right there with us. He has his eye on each of us. And he will keep watching over us until he sees his image in us—which may take a very long time.

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ANSWERING WITH MY FEET

Although I was baptized in the Presbyterian Church as an infant, during my elementary school years I attended a Baptist Sunday School and church with my best friend, Kristin Williams, and her family. This was the ONLY Baptist church in REALLY small, southern town. I can remember sitting in the pew during SuPews and Windowsnday Worship service, week after week, watching others go forward at the altar call, as the choir softly sang, “Just as I am Without One Plea,” publicly declaring their faith in Jesus, and I can remember wanting so desperately to do the same.

I would sit there, Sunday after Sunday, experiencing an almost fight-or-flight panic, knowing that God was calling me, yet unable to respond. At the tender age of 8 or 9 or 10, I was petrified and felt very much alone, and knew that if my salvation depended upon my walking down that long aisle by myself and later being baptized by immersion in front of the entire congregation–well, I’d just have to go to Hell. I never discussed any of this with anyone–neither my parents nor my friend. And of course I never went forward.

Late 1993—in a congregation in Seattle, Washington—was the first time I can ever remember singing the hymn, “Here I am, Lord.” As we sang that hymn, I found tears rolling down my cheeks and, if it hadn’t been a Presbyterian church, (whHymnal Page Wavyere we do everything decently and in order,) I can guarantee you I would have been on my knees right there in the pew, and if there had been an altar call, I would’ve been the first person to go forward. I sensed that something quite profound was happening—but I had no idea what.
But early the next year, while studying the book of Mark, I found myself driven, studying scripture and praying and crying, at all hours of the night and into the early morning. The scriptures were speaking directly to me. And what I heard scared me to death. I felt that God was calling me to some kind of ministry.

After a month or two of very little sleep, I called our pastor and told him we needed to talk. I told him that I was seeking answers when I didn’t even have a clue what the questions were. He asked if the Holy Spirit was working in my life, and I said, “Oh, yeah!” And then he said, “Is it about ministry?”Open Bible 2

I asked him if there was someone I could talk to who could help me figure out what God wanted me to do with my life. He said yes, that I needed to continue to talk to God. I then asked him if there was a book I could read to help me figure out God’s will for my life. He said yes, and handed me a Bible. He was such a big help, wasn’t he?

So with great fear and uncertainty I began to ask God what in the world he was doing, and what it meant for my life. I was embarrassed and ashamed to admit I even thought God was calling me to ministry. I knew that I was not good enough, could NEVER be good enough for him to use me. I was sure that I was having some nightmare and that when I woke up, I was going to find that I’d made a real fool of myself. And then, when I finally was convinced that maybe he could use me—not in spite of my years of pain and loneliness and sin and wandering in the wilderness, but because of it—well, then I started talking REALLY fast.
“You know, God, I’m not a good speaker. I mean, you know that I’ve NEVER spoken in front of a group of people in my life, other than to lead the call to worship on Sunday, and you know how my knees knock and my voice shakes when I do THAT. And besides, God, I’ve got this good job that I worked hard to get, and we have a nice house, our kids are all gone, we’re going to start traveling and living the good life.

Besides, all the people who have known me during my
40-some years in the wilderness will think I’m a hypocrite. They know the REAL me–and that won’t provide a very good witness to them, will it? I mean, this whole thing could turn you AND me into laughingstocks.

And anyway, God, the closest seminary is in San Francisco. You know that there’s no way we can move to San Francisco or Princeton, or Dubuque, Iowa or Austin, Texas. Not only that, God—my husband’s not going to understand any of this. I’ve tried to talk to him about it and he thinks I’m half crazy. And God, are you forgetting how old I am? This whole thing is insane! I’m too old, I can’t speak in public, there’s no seminary around, my husband thinks I’m having a mid-life crisis. What could you possibly be thinking?”
I spent a lot of time in prayer, asking God that if I was interpreting this wrong, that if this WASN’T what he wanted me to do, he would hit me over the head with a 2×4 to get my attention. I can be a slow learner sometimes, so I was really hoping that I had it all wrong, that he would let me off the hook. I prayed hard and long for answers.
Well, talk about answers! They were not exactly what I had expected, to say the least! The few close friends in whom I confided said it was perfect. Even my mother, after she got over the shock, said she could see it. My kids thought it was wonderful. I found out there was a seminary just 7 blocks from our house, and they wanted me—and I wouldn’t be the oldest one in the class! (That had been a major concern!) My husband ran some numbers and figured that although it would be a struggle, we could survive financially if I quit my job to attend seminary full-time. And, genius that I am, I figured out that I would be the same age in 1998, whether I went to seminary or not.
I truly believe that God has been preparing me for ministry all my life. He was building me out of the sturdy, concrete stuff of life and faith, of joy and pain. He was sanding off the rough edges, filling in the cracks— and I can guarantee you there are still lots of those to be sanded and filled. If he had called me years earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready. But when the time was right, he called me. And thank God, this time, unlike when I was a little girl in that Baptist church, I put on my walking shoes, got up out of the pew and walked forward, and gave my whole life to Jesus Christ once and for all.
I’m wondering how many of you have heard God whispering in your ear, maybe shouting at you that it’s time to go? Not necessarily to ordained ministry—we’re certainly not all called to that vocation—but called to serve him in whatever way he directs you. Have you heard that whisper? felt that nudge? experienced the unsettling feeling that you need to be on your knees before him, asking his will for your life?

I know that some of you have. Many of you are living lives of service right now, as Elders, as Deacons, as Trustees, as Sunday School teachers, as choir members. Some are ministering in various ways to the elderly, the sick, the dying, the hopeless. Some are dedicated to specific missions, such as Habitat for Humanity, or Youth for Christ. And some are serving as witnesses wherever you go, in your places of work, in your family relationships, in your social encounters.

And for those of you who have yet to experience a call to the Lord’s service—where are your walking shoes? Are they somewhere in the back of your closBig Feetet, covered with mud and tar, with one broken lace and rundown heels? Or do you have them by the back door, waiting for Jesus to knock, saying, “Follow me?”
And when he does, how will you answer?

Because what I’ve learned is that when God calls you, you have only one choice. You either follow, or you don’t. There’s no in-between. You put on the very best shoes you have, and you step out. You might be shaking, scared out of your wits, without a map or a compass, without a lunch or a backpack, but in the end, when he calls, either you go—or you don’t.

A HOBO’S TALE

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Our Daddy was a hobo.  Some of a more genteel nature might call it “riding the rails”.  We never knew about it until he was long dead and buried.  It’s something none of us kids remembers hearing about.  I don’t think it was embarrassment on Daddy’s part, since he often mentioned that he started out as a poor boy from Pinson, Alabama.  He had a humble heart until the day he died.

Steam Locomotive Elbe

We became aware of Daddy’s travels (he was apparently accompanied by one of his brothers) when my brother was cleaning out Daddy’s file cabinet and found stacks of letters written by his mother (our Grandmother Gibson) during the Great Depression.  There were also back-and-forth communications from a few of his good friends.  Most of those letters and postcards are full of insider jokes and chitchat that would not enrich this telling, so they have been omitted.  Needless to say, we were surprised and delighted, to discover this mother lode of family history.

I was greatly saddened to realize that for whatever reason, Daddy never shared this part of his life with us.  I don’t think it was because he had anything to hide.  I just think we were so selfishly wrapped up in our own lives and dysfunctional growing-up years that we never asked about his.  At any rate, we now have this brief, poignant slice of history of one family’s efforts to survive during the depression.  Daddy was 17 years old on December 21, 1931.

I promised to transcribe what I could of the letters.  Most were written in pencil, and many have faded into obscurity. Misspellings and grammatical errors are intact.  I wish we had more letters.  I wish we knew how this hobo became a lawyer, and then was appointed to a Circuit Judgeship by the governor.  Most of all, I wish Daddy were still here so he could tell us about it.  I miss him so.


June 20, 1932

Sunday night 11:15

Well kiddies, how are you getting along.  Not very well I guess.  I just got out of bed again.  I did not to go sleep till after day light this morning and awoke about 8 o’clock about burnt up.  Papa said it was 98 on the front porch this afternoon.   Some hot.  I don’t know a thing new to write, accept Fred left the 16th for California.  A delegate for something all expenses paid.  Jim told us this evening he was here a little while.  He give Papa a new straw hat.

J.C. Goodwin stopped one day last week and gave us a basket of beans.  Mrs. Savage gave us some blackberries.  Connie came Saturday brought a basket of beans, a basket of tomatoes, 2 cucumbers and a lot of onions.  I sure have thought of you boys.  Wish you were here.  I was sick and could not eat but have made up for lost time today. I guess you wish I would not tell you what we eat, but I am afraid you should come home.  We may not do so well next week but maybe we can have something.  You had better burn these letters.

Helen said she read Dock’s letter and there wasn’t much to it, just mentioned that the bog had two men working and that he had advised you to timber up under the rock and that is right, but from what your dady said he wrote a mean letter.  I know that you both know that if those men get hurt they can sue your dady and Dock and you know your dady could not get there to the trial.  He talks of hitch hiking.  I just laugh at him.

I haven’t seen any of the boys, not even passing.  Well I believe I will quit lecturing.  I may think of something in the morning so night night.  Write.  Lots of love, Mamma

Monday morning 9:15:  Half done washing, not so bad with the girls helping.  By by.  Mamma


June 23, 1932

 Dear Wallace,

I guess you will be surprised to hear from me down here.  Wallace, if it is at all possible I wish you would send me a little money.  I am broke, hungry and no place to stay.  Do not mention my plight to your folks. I will repay you as soon as possible.  Write to me whether you can spare any money or not, as I would like to hear from you.  Dan


August 15, 1932

Dear Wallace,

Received your two cards this AM and am glad you are getting along well.  The ladies should know that you were not a Jew.  Jews never beg.  They always have something to sell.  They never work.

AJ (Honeycutt) dropped in yesterday.  He said Charley was taking a bath as usual.  He was talking to Jack, wanted to know where you boys were.  You were lucky to make a few pennies.

Jack and Connie (Tucker – ultimately married Daddy’s sister, Helen) were planning a trip to Atlanta tonight.  Connie is going up town this afternoon to see a boy that runs a transfer.  Thinks they might get a ride.  If not they will catch a freight.  Farming is about done so Connie is looking for a job too.

Wallace I hardly know what to tell you.  Papa is trying to sell out to Uncle Dock for $250.  In fact he has agreed to take that.  This morning I got Jack to call Mr. Sanford about that sample.  It run 39.95.  He asked if Jack could ship it by Wednesday.  Of course he can’t.  Mr. Sanford said they were trying to see if they couldn’t give him something on the other car.

Well there is no news.  Never is.  I hope you all get a job in the bean field instead of the pea field.  Get your business in shape and get back here in time for school.  I think you can go all right.

Well I hope you get enough to eat and make enough money to keep enough clothes to cover you.  Have On the Road Againyou slept in the jungles and had your mulligan stew yet?  You had better look out for body lice.  I have heard they were in the jungles.  All hobos are not used to shower baths.

Wallace I was in hopes I could send you some money but can’t this time.  Ruth said tell you hello and not eat too much.

Well it is sprinkling here.  I have to quit and go out and get some clothes.  Well all of you be real good boys.  Write often.  Lots of love, your Mother


June 26, 1933

Dear Wallace,

I will write you a few lines tonight.  We are all well.  I was sick since you left but am better.  Raymond and Helen (Daddy’s brother and sister) are both here now.  Helen may go home in the morning, am not sure.  I don’t know how long Raymond will stay.  He hopes to get to work real soon.  Jim (Daddy’s brother) and Viola were here quite a while tonight.  Ruth (Daddy’s sister) went to Pinson with them today.  The missionary society are giving Helen a shower 1 week from next Thursday at Caseys.

Well Charley and a friend arrived in Bham this morning.  You boys had better look out if you don’t want to meet them.  They came by here this evening with Harry.  Papa said they were going to Mobile by buss tomorrow to find you and Bill and go with you.  We think you boys would have better luck by yourselves.

Harry said he dropped you a card.  I guess he told you all the news.  He seems to be all by himself.  Said the other evening that he did not have a friend in town.  Boys he means they are all out of town.

Well I hope you are both well and soon get a boat and have a nice trip.  Hitler is as mean as ever.  Be good boys and hurry home.  Write often.  Love, Mother


June 27, 1933

From:  Jim Gibson (Wallace’s brother, a lawyer)

Dear Wallace:

I received your card and would like to know how your finances are holding out.  Let me know something about what you are having to pay for board, etc., so I can supplement what you have if necessary.

I am trying to get some more information in regard to your trip and I shall let you know immediately upon receipt of same.

With best wishes to you and Bill, I am, Sincerely your Brother.  Jim Gibson


 June 29, 1933

Dear Wallace,

I have been looking for a letter all day.  This evening Raymond told me Jim got a card from you.  I guess you are broke.

I haven’t seen Harry for a few days.  A few evenings ago he dropped by rather late, said he had just been over and put Charles and his friend to bed.

Mrs. Holmes was at Mrs. Savage’s the other day.  She told her that Jessie was going away.  Helen said she thought to California and that those boys wanted Harry to go back with him and she thought he would.  If so she would give up her apartment and rent a room.

Helen came over this evening.  They were at a show this afternoon.  The Caseys are giving her a shower Thursday night it is the church crowd.

I don’t hear any news.  Jack expects to come home either the 12-13.  I guess Carl will be here then, we expect him any time now.  He will be here two weeks.

Raymond (Daddy’s brother) will be here and I expect Madge too.  We have been cleaning house, cleaning windows and washing curtains not quite through yet.  Ruth Benham is coming tomorrow night.  Oh yes Carl Williams told Papa it is a girl.

Mrs. Hickman, Mrs. Robertson, Pauline and Louise were here yesterday afternoon about an hour and a half.  They asked about you.  I don’t think they knew that you were away and I did not tell them.

Ruth went to Pinson.  Miss Sawyer was in the hospital a few days.  She was supposed to come home today.  They seemed to think she had appentice (sic) but I guess not.  Are you coming home soon if you don’t get a boat.

Wallace I am broke as usual.  Wish I could send you some money.  Raymond said Jim said he guessed he would have to send you some more.  Hope he does real soon.

Well guess I will quit, it is 10 o’clock.  By by.  Love, Mother.


I wasn’t able to decipher any more of the faded letters. Still, I will always treasure this brief glimpse of life during the Depression, when parents couldn’t always afford to feed their families.  Of course I realize that even today, many families are in this same situation in our own community, as well as world-wide.  It breaks my heart.  But I am honored to have just a glimpse into the life of one who, in spite of (maybe because of) his own struggles, was so generous in so many ways to me and others, and worked so hard to make sure his family was well-cared for.  I love you, Daddy.  I miss you.

RABBIT REVELATION

Last night I had a revelation.  It actually came after midnight, as I was reading a book about a farm woman who raised rabbits.  Whenever this particular rabbit saw the woman coming with her pail, he wondered if that pail contained HIS dinner, or if HE was HER dinner.  This, it turned out, was not his lucky day.

That story brought to mind the rabbits we had when we were growing up.  My brother Wally reminded me that Mother brought the two rabbits home to Trussville (near Birmingham, Alabama) on the train, following a visit to her sister in Mobile.  Yes, our mother carried two caged rabbits on the Humming Bird, part of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) that traveled from Cincinnati to New Orleans from the late 1940s to the late ‘60s.  Yep!  That’s our mom!

Now Mother, a survivor of a dirt-poor, rural upbringing, apparently envisioned herself a “pioneer woman,” having already raised a couple of broods of chickens under grow-lights in our basement.  But that’s another story.  In retrospect, I have no idea whether she brought the rabbits home as pets or as future meals.  We three children named them Flopsy and Mopsy, and we certainly considered them pets.  I do know that there were only two, and there remained only two, so if she intended for them to breFlopsyed, she wasn’t particularly skilled at picking out the males from the females.  Daddy, who was not exactly a handyman, built a hutch with wood and chicken wire, and Flopsy and Mopsy lived at the edge of the woods behind our house on the hill.

One morning, our parents announced that the rabbits had chewed through the wooden hutch and escaped.  We were devastated, and began to search for the rabbits.  I can remember wandering through the woods for hours, looking for them.  Every time I turned a corner, I was afraid I’d find their mutilated, bloody carcasses strewn across the path.  We never did find Flopsy and Mopsy.

As I continued to read my book last night, a light bulb suddenly flashed on in my brain.  Bells rang.  Two and two suddenly added up to four.  Do you suppose . . . would she dare . . . is it possible . . . did Mother fry those rabbits for dinner and tell us it was chicken? And would we have recognized what we were eating?  I started laughing, and couldn’t stop.  I got up, walked around giggling, got back into bed, still laughing.  Had our parents pulled a fast one on us, and kept it a secret all these years?

We will never know the entire story, because Mother and Daddy are long gone.  But I’ll bet dollars to donuts that Flopsy and Mopsy sacrificed their little furry cotton tails to provide a delicious meal for a family of five.  We may have been satisfied, but that was definitely NOT the rabbits’ lucky day.

The Cradle and the Cross

I posted this a couple of years ago but wanted to share it again, so here goes!  Several years ago I bought a Christmas card, with artwork by Beate Heinen, that portrays the birth of Jesus, complete with the baby in the manger, and Mary and Joseph, all huddled in a cave-like structure.  The unique thing about this picture (see below) is that a narrow dirt road leads away from the manger, and winds up over several small hills.  People are walking along this road that ultimately ends at the top of a high hill—and on that hill are three crosses.  The trees close to the manger are covered with blossoms.  The trees closer to the crosses are bare.  When you first look at the picture, you don’t notice all the details of the background.  But as the details become evident, their significance is mind-boggling.

This picture is a gentle reminder that without the cross, there would have been no need for the cradle.  Jesus was born for one reason—to die for us.  Think about it.  Jesus is God.  Jesus had no need to become a man—a human—on earth.  The need was ours.  In our sinfulness, we are not worthy to be in God’s presence, much less to live with him forever.  There is no sacrifice we could make that would possibly make amends for our sin.  The only sacrifice that could do this was the sacrifice of God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus (God!) came to earth as a human and gave his life so that all who believe in him might have eternal life.

It’s amazing how much of this we don’t even think about at Christmas.  We get caught up in shopping and cooking and cleaning and entertaining and trying to make the dollars stretch as prices increase and so does the size of our family.  We worry about what we’ll wear to which party and whether the china is chipped.  We exhaust ourselves until we hardly know our own names, much less the name of the one for whom all this preparation is supposed to be.

In fact, Christmas may come and go in a great whirl, with hardly a thought of the birth of Jesus.  Oh, sure, we wouldn’t miss those cute little kids in shepherds’ costumes, or the choir’s artful performance.  But most of us make little time for quiet reflection on the true reason for the season.  And even fewer, I would guess, make the connection between the cradle and the cross.

As we enter into the holy season of Advent, my challenge to each one of us is to do just that.  Take time to relax in silence, to read the age-old story of the Christ child coming.  And then do something really radical—read the resurrection story, as well.  Make the connection between the two.  And give thanks to God that both events took place because he loves us so much.

May this be a very special and meaningful Christmas for all of us.  Glory to God in the highest!

EULOGY

July 25, 2011

My children’s father died Saturday night.  He struggled somewhat briefly with a cancer that started in his abdomen and quickly migrated to various organs in his body.  He signed the papers to enroll in Hospice care on Friday, and Saturday, without pain or struggle, he just drifted away.  God is indeed merciful.

I don’t know what to think or feel about Steve’s death.  We have not been husband and wife for 35 years, so there is little, if any, emotional attachment.  But still . . . my heart breaks for our son David and daughter Stephanie, and for Steve’s soul-mate and wife of 27 years, MaryLou, who will be lost without him.  Any career-military man who not only supports his wife’s “Celebrating Home” business, but also hosts home parties to hawk the wares, can’t be all bad!

We were college sweethearts and married a year after he graduated and became an officer in the U.S. Army.  We lived in many different places, including Germany, during the next twelve years.  Steve was in VietNam when our twins were born, and didn’t see them until they were six months old.  He was proud to assume the role of Daddy, and played a significant part in caring for our children when he wasn’t away doing military stuff.

It became obvious rather early in our marriage that Steve and I were not well-suited to each other, but we stuck it out as long as we could.  When we decided that divorce was the next step, we agreed that our children had to come first, regardless of what else our lives entailed.  I can say with all certainty that Steve made many sacrifices to ensure that I, as a single parent, had enough resources to provide for our children.  We both struggled at times, but never went without the basics.  That includes both of our kids having the opportunity to get a college education.  It wasn’t easy for either of us, but we cared about our children, we cared about each other, and we made it work.

Another thing I can say with all certainty is that Steve was a decent, honest, caring human being.  When he wasn’t away on military duty, he spent quality time with our children on a daily basis.  He would take them everywhere he went, so that I could catch my breath after being with them all day, every day.  He gave me great support as I finished my college education.  When our son started high school, he wanted to move to Virginia to live with his dad.  That was devastating to me, but I knew he needed a male role model, so Steve took on the responsibility of having a teenager under his roof day and night.

Steve struggled with alcohol for a while, but with the grace of God he overcame that.  He was close to his parents, brother, niece, nephews, and various other members of his family.  He watched his mother die of cancer and his father of emphysema.  He had to deal with the shock of his brother’s untimely death  He assumed the role of family patriarch.  He may have entered this world a premature and a sickly baby, but he ultimately grew into a good and strong man with great faith.  He definitely “walked the talk” of his faith, and lived this out at one time by serving as a pastor in a prison ministry following his retirement.

Steve’s wish was that his body be donated to science.  A memorial service will be held this Sunday.  Our children will be there, of course.  And I pray that someone, perhaps many someones, will put their arms around them and surround them with the love and strength they will need as they say goodbye to this good and generous man whom I was privileged to know once upon a time.

Another Communion Story

Years before I became an ordained minister, the tiny church we attended in Seattle hosted a presbytery meeting.  At this meeting, we were donating money to purchase washing machines and dryers for the laundry facility in a local public housing project.  Two women from “the projects” were there to receive a check from the Presbytery.  It was fairly obvious to most of us that these women didn’t have much experience in church, and didn’t know quite how to dress or act.  But that was OK.  We proper Presbyterians were all-too-graciously and condescendingly willing to overlook the fact that they weren’t “like us.”

We were going to serve Communion during the time of worship, and because of the standing-room-only situation in the small sanctuary, some, including the women from the housing projects, were standing or seated in the entryway, which is also called a narthex.

Each worshipper was to tear a piece of bread from the loaf, and dip it into the chalice of grape juice.  As the minister offered the bread and cup to those in the narthex, one of the women from “the projects” snatched the chalice from his hands, said “Oh, for me?” upended it, and proceeded to take a big gulp.  That’s one service the minister will never forget!

As we later discussed what had happened, I thought, “Well, why not?  Why not?  Jesus died for her, as much as he died for me.  And just because she doesn’t know the rules, just because she doesn’t dress like the rest of us, doesn’t mean she is any less worthy to come to Christ’s table and drink from his cup.”

She was here to receive gifts from the body of Christ.  Why not this gift, too?  Why not the gift of the body and blood of Christ, poured out for each one of us—poured out for her, as well?  And ever since, that experience has been my reminder of what it’s all about to receive Communion with others who are just as broken, just as tainted, and just as sinful as I am.

Joy at the Table

This past Thursday afternoon and evening I attended a meeting of the Presbytery of Olympia,  our local governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  These 5-times-per-year meetings provide a venue for us to conduct our business, worship together, and enjoy community and fellowship with pastors and lay elders from our 50 congregations.

By design, these meetings are built around a time of worship that includes prayer, song, scripture, and the sacrament of Holy Communion, also referred to as the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.  In most churches, meditative music is played while people are being served the bread and wine or juice.  This is a time for contemplation, for personal prayer, for acknowledging and asking forgiveness for our sinful selves, and for giving thanks to God for the incredible gift of his son Jesus, whose broken and crucified body is signified by the elements of bread and wine.

Since I have somehow become the de facto photographer at these meetings, I usually have the privilege of sitting toward the front, which means I have a bird’s-eye view of my brothers and sisters as they come forward to receive the Communion elements.  I find it somewhat ironic, and altogether wonderful, that all these believers (who just spent hours debating and often disagreeing rather strongly with each other) regularly come to the table together as a unified body–the body of Christ, known as the Church. I love looking at their faces, their hands, their posture, as they slowly and reverently come forward to partake of this holy meal.  To me, this time of observation is as much an act of worship as the partaking.

At this Thursday’s meeting, however, there was an altogether different spirit in play.  We were blessed by the music of “Loose Canon,” a bluegrass/gospel band from Bethany Presbyterian Church.   Before and during the worship service, these gifted musicians shared their music with us.  We were clapping and tapping and slapping our knees in time to the music. Now anyone who knows much about staid Presbyterians, sometimes referred to as the “frozen chosen,” can appreciate the irony in this!

As we all came forward to receive the Communion elements from the servers, the band sang a wonderful, joyful hymn:  “Let us Talents and Tongues Employ.”  Now most of us are quite familiar with this new-er hymn (found in our newest hymnal, which is now pretty old!).   “Let us talents and tongues employ, reaching out with a shout of joy: bread is broken the wine is poured, Christ is spoken and seen and heard.  Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the Word around: loaves abound!”

And as the band played and sang, I looked with awe and wonder at the beaming faces of those coming forward, with hands open and heads bowed, to receive the bounty and grace freely offered to them.  One by one, yet as the whole people of God, they came; one by one they were served; one by one they slowly made their way back to their seats, to bow in prayer until the sacrament was concluded.  And I was blessed.  Blessed, not only by the great gift offered to me by the servers in the name of our Lord, but also by the gift of oneness that I was privileged to experience in that moment.  “Christ is able to make us one, at the table he sets the tone, teaching people to live to bless, love in word and in deed express.  Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the Word around: loaves abound!”

Special Gifts

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I love presents—both giving them and getting them.  When growing up, I was the primary gift wrapper in the family.  My mom would even give me my own strongly-taped gifts to wrap!  I enjoyed looking for just the perfect gift for family members and friends.  I reveled in buying them something extra special, something they would never buy for themselves.

Now our family was not particularly well-to-do, but I have to say that there were always plenty of gifts under our tree each Christmas.  Sure, we kids all got our share of new pajamas, phonograph records, and odds-and-ends from Woolworth’s.  But there was always at least one very special gift for each of us—something we’d hoped upon hope that we’d get, but never really thought we would.

If those special gifts were unwrappable or easily recognizable, they might be hidden behind the sofa (BB gun), on the front porch (refurbished bicycle) or tucked way back behind the tree (beloved Madame Alexander doll).  We’d think we had opened everything, and then one of our parents would say, “Wait!  What’s that I see over there behind the sofa?”  That much-coveted gift was the culmination of all the waiting, all the hoping, all the hours of perusing the Sears Catalog.  What a joyful moment that would be for all of us!

The gift I cherished most, and really the only one I still remember with much clarity, was a white wool pleated skirt and matching blazer that I received during my Junior or Senior year in high school.  You need to understand that this was a sacrifice on the part of my parents, because they KNEW, without a shadow of a doubt, that the white outfit would spend more time at the dry cleaner’s than it would on my body or in my closet.  But this is the essence of gift giving, isn’t it?  To sacrifice in order to bring joy to the lives of others?

So I continued to enjoy shopping for that perfect gift, year after year, until it became customary, somewhere along the way, to ask people far beyond the age of sitting on Santa’s knee what they wanted for Christmas.  And thus was born the era of “you tell me what you want and I’ll pay for it, wrap it, and give it to you as though it were a surprise on Christmas morning.”  I knew that we were still bringing joy to their lives, even if there was no element of surprise, so I ordered those shirts, size medium, from page 27 of the Land’s End catalog.  And when there was any doubt, or no Christmas list surfaced, we would send checks so they could buy what they wanted, after they decided what, exactly, that was.  This did NOT do a lot to enhance the Christmas spirit in our house, but we more or less went with the flow.  That is, until a few years ago, when the ubiquitous “gift card” raised its ugly head.

Now I know that in practical terms, gift cards make shopping a quick and easy job.  No worrying about whether we’ve bought the right size, the best color, or the latest trendy gadget that will be out of style before the Christmas tree goes out to the curb.  Still, a gift that takes little or no imagination, is often ordered via the internet and delivered without my even having touched (much less wrapped) it, is somehow is not my idea of that very special gift chosen for an individual.

But wait!  Maybe there’s hope!  Our 14-year-old grandson has suddenly discovered clothes and cell phones.  Probably girls, too, although at the moment he won’t admit it.  He made it clear to everyone that he’d like clothes for Christmas, and not just any clothes.  He already has a couple of favorite stores that sell exactly the style flannel shirt he wears almost as religiously as he does his school uniform.  He provided sizes, colors, everything a shopping Santa or grandparent might need.  Something I can wrap!  Right after Thanksgiving, Grandson said, “My goal for Christmas this year is to receive ZERO gift cards.”  And Grandma said, AMEN!”

Community Matters

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While sitting out here on our lanai this Sunday morning, drying my hair in the glorious Hawaiian sunshine, I’ve been watching flocks of pure white terns, gracefully swooping around and around in swallow-like -patterns through the air at a speed that makes it difficult to get a decent photograph. The most interesting thing I’ve noticed is the fact that these birds rarely fly alone. When I do spy one by itself, within a couple of seconds it pairs up with another, and those two join with another pair, and yet another, without missing a beat, until an entire flock is zipping in and out of trees, up toward the sky, down toward the ground, up and around again, and on they go. I don’t remember ever seeing flocks of terns around this hotel before, and am curious as to why here, and why now, but for now I’ll settle for sharing my observations about “how.”

I choose to categorize the birds’ habit of flying in pairs or flocks as a type of community, a concept not unknown in the animal kingdom. Nor in the kingdom of humanity. We were created to live in community with others–however one might define that term–and to share our lives with them. This doesn’t mean that we should, could, would never live alone. However, like these gorgeous birds, and in spite of our occasional erstwhile efforts to do otherwise, we somehow manage to incorporate our lives with those of others in one way or another. Maybe in a brief, chance meeting; maybe for a few hours, or months, or for a lifetime. Maybe only in the grocery store, or walking on the beach, or in a committee meeting, or via email. But wherever the venue, whatever the mode, most of us–yes, even those of us who are introverted loners–do accept, and often welcome, others into our community.

My faith provides theological underpinnings for humanity’s mandate to live in some semblance of community. I dare say that most Christian theologians believe that God has always been our ultimate example in this regard, as God has always lived in community–the Trinity: Creator Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three were present from the moment of creation, and all three will be with us throughout eternity. Although each person of the Trinity serves a different function, the three are all integral parts of the whole. None of the three exists separately from the rest.

And neither should we. We need others just as much, possibly more, than others need us in their lives. God calls us to live in community with others who have been lovingly created by the same God who created us. Regardless of our differences, we are all called to glorify the God who created us, and to enjoy him forever. In community, as together we soar.  That’s my sermon for today. Thanks be to God. Amen!

Here We Go . . . Again!

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We left home around 6:30 Tuesday morning, hoping to arrive at Sea-Tac Airport by 7:30 for our 9:20 flight to Honolulu.  We completely forgot about the teeth-gnashing rush hour traffic that one encounters that time of morning, as we’re used to taking earlier flights.  Arghhhhhh!   Took us quite a bit longer than we’d anticipated, but we still had oodles of time to kill.

However, not everything went so smoothly.  As we were riding the escalator from the transportation level to the terminal level of the airport, one of the wheels of my suitcase caught in the escalator, and began to tip over backward.  I turned slightly to grab it, and I, too, fell over backward.  What a panicky feeling THAT was, going tail over teakettle with my feet in the air!  Thank God for the young man behind me who grabbed me and held my head and shoulders up off the stairs until we reached the top.  I’m so glad nobody had a camera aimed at me as I rode the escalator on my back, head pointed down and feet pointed up.  That would have made a great video.  What can I say?  I am just the epitome of grace and beauty, and this was a shining example.

Very frustrating and scary, but I escaped unscathed except for a bruise on my leg, and we made our gate in plenty of time.  We even got through security without X-rays or groping, although we had been psychologically prepared–I was going with the X-ray.

Our plane left on time, and we had a very pleasant flight, as much as one can  these days.  We had a headwind, so it took a bit longer than originally projected–6+ hours.  Whatever, it was worth the sitting to arrive in a place where it’s warm and sunny every day, and the water is many shades of gorgeous blue.  Truly paradise for those of us who don’t see the sun for months at a time and wear fleece 9-10 months out of the year.

The Cradle and the Cross

Several years ago I bought a Christmas card, with artwork by Beate Heinen, that portrays the birth of Jesus, complete with the baby in the manger, and Mary and Joseph, all huddled in a cave-like structure.  The unique thing about this picture (see below) is that a narrow dirt road leads away from the manger, and winds up over several small hills.  People are walking along this road that ultimately ends at the top of a high hill—and on that hill are three crosses.  The trees close to the manger are covered with blossoms.  The trees closer to the crosses are bare.  When you first look at the picture, you don’t notice all the details of the background.  But as the details become evident, their significance is mind-boggling.

This picture is a gentle reminder that without the cross, there would have been no need for the cradle.  Jesus was born for one reason—to die for us.  Think about it.  Jesus is God.  Jesus had no need to become a man—a human—on earth.  The need was ours.  In our sinfulness, we are not worthy to be in God’s presence, much less to live with him forever.  There is no sacrifice we could make that would possibly make amends for our sin.  The only sacrifice that could do this was the sacrifice of God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus (God!) came to earth as a human and gave his life so that all who believe in him might have eternal life.

It’s amazing how much of this we don’t even think about at Christmas.  We get caught up in shopping and cooking and cleaning and entertaining and trying to make the dollars stretch as prices increase and so does the size of our family.  We worry about what we’ll wear to which party and whether the china is chipped.  We exhaust ourselves until we hardly know our own names, much less the name of the one for whom all this preparation is supposed to be.

In fact, Christmas may come and go in a great whirl, with hardly a thought of the birth of Jesus.  Oh, sure, we wouldn’t miss those cute little kids in shepherds’ costumes, or the choir’s artful performance.  But most of us make little time for quiet reflection on the true reason for the season.  And even fewer, I would guess, make the connection between the cradle and the cross.

As we enter into the holy season of Advent, my challenge to each one of us is to do just that.  Take time to relax in silence, to read the age-old story of the Christ child coming.  And then do something really radical—read the resurrection story, as well.  Make the connection between the two.  And give thanks to God that both events took place because he loves us so much.

May this be a very special and meaningful Christmas for all of us.  Glory to God in the highest!

Heartthrobs

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Recent radio advertisements for the rock band “Nelson,” headlined by Gunnar and Matthew, twin sons of 1960s heartthrob singer Ricky Nelson, got me thinking about the heartthrobs of my life.  Yes,  Ricky Nelson was definitely right up there with the best of them.  Oh, was he ever cute with that sexy little sneer as he sang “Lonesome Town” and other favorites of the day.

However, the first “heartthrob” I can remember is Roy Rogers.  Yes, I mean the cowboy!  I think I was probably in the 4th grade or so, and I can remember sleeping with his picture under my pillow.  My parents never mentioned it, but I’m sure it gave them a few giggles.  I thought he was the best looking dude I’d ever seen.  Of course that was just the opinion of a 10-year-old, and what did I know?

Just a very few years later, along came Elvis.  OK, I have to say that I wasn’t as “in love” with Elvis as were most girls of that time.  Nevertheless, he was amazing in his ability to teach an entire generation how to move in ways we’d never seen before.  Or to wish we could.  When I see old films of his performances, I realize just how revolutionary and in-your-face his sexy moves were.

The next heartthrob (that I can remember) was Johnny Mathis.  Yes, I’m aware that Johnny Mathis was black and I was living in the deep South.  I think my attraction was the warm, cozy, sexy songs he sang.  Whatever.  I never recognized it as a “crush” but now I can see it quite clearly.  Mmmmm….”Chances are . . . ”   Chances are that I had no idea at the time that he was gay.  In fact, I probably didn’t really have a clue what that meant.  So . . . a black, gay man . . . hmmmmmm . . . was I already enthralled with impossible relationships?

During my high school and early college years, I was madly in love with Richard Chamberlain, of Dr. Kildare fame.  Omigosh, I thought he was the best-looking man in all creation, with that blonde hair and blue eyes.  I remember my freshman year of college, watching the series in the sorority common room with other Pi Phis and drooling over the sexy doctor.  Seems that he was killed off, or the series ended, or something, about that time.  I believe there were rumors even way back then about the probability that he was gay.  I didn’t care.  I still don’t care.  When I saw him in “The Thornbirds,” I fell in love all over again.  It wouldn’t take much to entice me to watch it again, and of course I know I will cry (and cry, and cry).  Yes, I’m a romantic slob.  I fully admit it.  Absolutely hopeless.

To further prove the above, I continue to have heartthrobs, even at my advanced age (and happily married).  I think Robert Redford gets more attractive the older he gets, and Patrick Dempsey (Gray’s Anatomy) still has me drooling for at least an hour each week.  But my newest heartthrob is Matthew Bomer, star of “White Collar.”  Wow!  That’s all I can say!  Those flashing eyes and engaging smile are just too much for this girl to resist.  And this, just when I thought there were no more men of that caliber to be appreciated.  Wondering what the future holds in that regard.  I mean, really . . . who will I be drooling over when I’m 75?  80??? Who, indeed?

P.S.  Oh my goodness, how did I ever forget Perry Como and Andy Williams, the kings of smoothness??????????

Final Travel Tips

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Before I conclude the “Germany” portion of this blog, I’d like to share a few more travel tips that we learned, sometimes the hard way.

MONEY ISSUES: We’ve found that we don’t need much cash (Euros) when traveling to Europe–maybe $200 at the most–as literally every place accepts credit cards.  Our MasterCard worked just fine.  The one thing you don’t want to do is go wandering around with wads of cash in your pockets, purse, or luggage!  And if you’re traveling with a spouse or partner, split what cash you do have between the two of you, so if one of you becomes a victim of pickpockets, you still have some money!  In a pinch you can always get money from an ATM with a debit card, although the fees are exorbitant and the exchange rate is not very good.  You can buy euros either from AAA (you have to order a “packet” in advance and then go pick it up), or from the money exchange at the airport.  I don’t think either offers an especially great exchange rate, so you’re at their mercy–but what else are you gonna do?

I would strongly suggest that you call your credit card provider prior to your trip and let them know approximately where you’ll be so that they don’t make the assumption that your credit card has been stolen and used by someone traveling in Greece, Italy, or wherever.  While I’m never completely comfortable telling someone that I’ll be out of the country, it still beats finding out after the fact that your account has been closed because of questionable charges made by someone who may or may not be you.  And yes, this actually happened to us on a cruise ship.  Fortunately, we hadn’t actually left the port and had cell phone access, so were able to call the credit card provider and confirm that it was actually us making charges to a cruise line company.

When it comes time to head back to the U.S., you want to spend down as much of your foreign currency as possible, allowing some for food purchases in the airport.  And if you still have a pocket full, you can get some pretty good deals in the duty free shops.

ELECTRONICS: There are two different electrical connectors for European travels that can cause confusion.  At least I know they confuse me!  First and foremost are the electrical plug adapters, which allow the plugs on your appliances (hair dryers, curling irons, laptops) to fit into the funny-shaped wall receptacles in Europe.  If you have dual-voltage appliances, you can make a direct connection with an “adapter,” which can be bought at AAA or some stores in the luggage/travel department.  The adapters needed for each country are different, and the package usually tells which countries the are made for.  I actually bought a package at AAA that included several different adapters.  However, the German adapter stated that it was not heavy-duty enough for laptops or other “large” items, so I found (in the electronics department at Fred Meyer) a single adapter that said it was OK for laptops.

Now all of the above is based on the assumption that your appliances are “dual-voltage.”  That means they are manufactured with the capability of handling both 110 and 220/volts (disclaimer:  I THINK this is the correct voltage–I’m not too well versed in electrical matters.  Heck I don’t even understand how TV and radio work!  Bottom line, though, you have either single or dual-voltage appliances.)  Most newer electrical devices have this capability, and I would strongly recommend NOT taking anything with you that does not, because that’s another issue that requires a “transformer,” a device that converts from US to European voltage.  My flat iron, netbook,  and cell phone charger all have dual voltage and all worked well.  John took his little “white noise” machine to block out ambient noise while sleeping, and he fried it, so it obviously was not dual voltage.  I didn’t bother taking a hair dryer, as most hotels provide those.

PACKING/CLOTHING: What a struggle it always is to decide what to pack and how much.  With airlines charging for checked baggage and limiting the weight of each bag (anywhere from 35-50 lbs maximum), the challenge is to pack clothes that mix and match, that can be worn multiple times before washing, and that will dry quickly if/when washed out in the sink or bathtub.

I have found that it pays to use a very limited color scheme when planning travel clothing.  For a two-week trip, I take two pairs of pants in addition to the ones I wear on the plane.  Pants are either black or khaki, and of lightweight  fabric that doesn’t wrinkle (much).    Then I pack shirts/tops/t-shirts that will mix and match with the pants, maybe a couple of scarves that mix and match with the tops and pants, and a couple of lightweight jackets, one of which I wear on the plane.  Depending on your destination and the time of year, you might also need a warmer jacket, but layering works well under most conditions.  I usually wear something warm (turtleneck maybe) on the plane, and always have a large woven scarf/pashmina in my carry-on, which works in lieu of a blanket on airlines that don’t provide one.

I try to wear slip-on shoes when flying, as they’re much easier to get on and off during the security ordeal, and on the plane, as well. These shoes should be comfortable enough for distance walking, so you can wear them on your daily excursions.  I always take a second pair of comfortable walking shoes, but no more, since they take up so much room in my luggage.

As for jewelry, leave anything valuable at home, and don’t wear anything that even LOOKS valuable unless you want to be a target for thieves and pickpockets.  I usually take two pair of earrings, one silver and one gold, and my wedding ring–that’s all!  I finally came to terms with the fact that I don’t have to be particularly fashionable when I travel, and if I wear the same stuff over and over, I’m never going to see the same people more than once anyway.  I never even think about taking anything “dressy,” unless we’re on a cruise.  Unless you’re going to the opera, everything in most countries is about as casual as it is here in the U.S.

I would not suggest skimping on socks and underwear.  Neither takes up much room in a suitcase, and I learned that neither I nor my companions enjoy my wearing them for more than one day!

I usually do not take a purse on the plane!  I put all my personal items, including my netbook, in my carry-on roll aboard bag, and pack a relatively smallish, flat purse and a fabric tote bag in one of the suitcases.  I’ve found that the more items I have to hang on to when I travel, the greater the possibility of losing something, so I try to minimize the risk.

INTERNATIONAL DRIVING LICENSE: When we lived in Germany many years ago, all Americans were required to get an “International Driving License.”  Today this is not required.  However, on the way to looking up other things, I discovered that such a license IS required in Austria, so in a last-days-before-travel panic, I set out to research how we might get such an animal.  Turns out this is not something that requires your taking a test, as it used to.  All you need is a valid US drivers’ license and some cash, so my assumption is that its only purpose, other than making money for someone,  is to show you are actually licensed to drive.  After checking online and making a subsequent phone call, I discovered that AAA provides these licenses for a fee (I think around $15-$20, which includes a photo), and they will provide them on the spot at any (I believe) AAA office.  Now we were NEVER, ever, asked for this document, either when we went across the border from Germany to Austria, or while we were in the country.  However, I would imagine that we would have needed to show them if we’d been stopped for any traffic violation, so better safe than sorry.  Oh, and they’re only good for a year, so if we ever go back to a country that requires this “license,” we’ll have to go through the process all over again.

I hope that what I have learned will help you have a safe and enjoyable trip, wherever you may go!  Happy traveling!

The Home Stretch

We left Salzburg after breakfast on a cloudy, cool, foggy Sunday morning, heading for Frankfurt and ultimately home.  It was our longest driving day, and it was my turn to drive.  What should have been a 5-hour drive turned into a 6-1/2 hour, frustrating and very tiring journey.  This was thanks to road construction that slowed traffic down to a crawl of 10-20 kmh (approximately 5-15 mph) for many, many miles.  The highlight, if you can call it that, was getting to drive approximately 100 mph on many stretches of the road, and doing it legally.  Most of the time, however, it was more like 75-85 mph when we weren’t crawling at the aforementioned 5-15 mph.

We arrived exhausted at the Steigenberger Airport Hotel, which, as John puts it, is designed to part you from any money you might still have before you leave the country.  Whew!  The room prices aren’t too bad, but everything else is a la cart and extremely EXPENSIVE!  The only one of their three restaurants that seemed to be open offered a huge dinner buffet, more than we could possibly imagine eating,g for about $50 per person, drinks not included.  By asking just the right questions, John was able to ascertain that we could purchase just the appetizer portion of the buffet for €12.50, or somewhere around $18 each.  By the time we added some house wine and a large bottle of water to share, the bill was still around $70!  Now how did THAT happen?

I have to insert right here the fact that I didn’t really research this hotel.  John remembered it from his military tour in Germany, and knew it was a very nice hotel located as close as one can get to the airport.  If I had checked the customer experience comments on Booking.com, which I did when we got home, we would not have been surprised at the cost of the food, the rude and less-than-helpful staff, and the lack of anything whatsoever to do other than eat and drink.  Ah, well–live and learn.

We decided NOT to go down for breakfast on Monday morning.  The continental breakfast (we assumed that meant coffee, juice, and rolls) was around $25 per person.  The full breakfast buffet was somewhere around $35.  Who could possibly eat that much breakfast?  We had been spoiled by the wonderful (included in our room price) German breakfasts we’d enjoyed ever since we arrived in Germany.  We figured it sure wouldn’t hurt us to skip a meal, so we made coffee in our room and ate some cashews and cheese crackers I had brought from home.

By the way, there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as decaf coffee in Germany–at least we didn’t see it on any menu and weren’t offered that option at any of our hotels or B&Bs.  So, I learned that I CAN drink at least one cup of regular coffee in the morning if I have to, without my heart racing.  Two cups is pushing it.  But the German coffee was soooo good that it was hard to stop at one!

After our non-breakfast, we set out for Morfelden and Waldorf, towns where John used to live that were very close to our hotel.  He was able to find the area and the street, but couldn’t identify the exact house where they lived in the 1970s.  I think he found the same thing we found when visiting other cities where we lived so many years ago:  you can’t go home again!  Auf wiedersehen!

The Wedding

As I mentioned in the previous post, we had every intention of visiting St. Peter’s Church, so we headed off in that direction.  As we approached the stone courtyard of the church, it was obvious that something special was going on.  Elegantly dressed (for Germany) people were standing around tall, round tables, sipping champagne and nibbling hors d’oeuvres.  I asked a waitress what was happening, and she said, “A wedding.”

Well, the romantic in me took over and I was not about to leave, as we listened to a band play while guests began to funnel through the doors of the church.  Then came the attendants, one-by-one.  And after a couple of minutes, here comes the bride, being escorted across the stone plaza by a man I presumed was her father.  The most precious little girl was doing her best to hold the bride’s train up off the ground.  At some point I had the presence of mind to snap a few photos, which I will share with you.  And yes, I was definitely tempted to follow the bridal party inside and take a seat.

SALZBURG

Friday morning we made a 1/2 hour or so drive just across the border into Salzburg, Austria (of “Sound of Music” fame).  The Hotel Hohenstauffen was quite nice, with gracious hosts, nice rooms, and (HOORAY!) an elevator!  The elevator was barely large enough for two people, but hey, it beat walking up flights of stairs with our luggage, as we had to do in many hotels.  If you click on the photo to the right to enlarge it, you may be able to make out the printing on the red sign in the background that reads “Erotic Store.”  It didn’t take us long to figure out this hotel was in a “transitional” neighborhood, and the direction of the transition was NOT upward.

Once we were settled in our room, we walked (and walked and walked) to the newer section of Salzburg, which is still very old.  Nicknamed the “Rome of the North,” Salzburg has 38 Catholic churches, plus two Protestant churches and a synagogue.  NO, we did NOT go into all of them!!!!  We found ourselves at the Mirabell Gardens and Palace (schloss). The gardens were laid out in 1730, and have been open to the public since 1950.  Some of the outdoor scenes for The Sound of Music were filmed here.

We also wandered through a cemetery at St. Peter’s Church which I can’t begin to describe adequately but will try, anyway.  On one side of the narrow path and backing up to a building are large, mostly locked wrought-iron-gated spaces, each serving as a family grave site.  All of these are well kept and contain fresh flowers, pictures, religious icons, and personal mementos of the deceased.  The other side of the path is reserved for in-the-ground grave sites that are bumper-to-bumper, so to speak.  I would guess that each plot is approximately 3 feet by six feet at the very most.  I don’t even want to think about the burial logistics involved in all that.   Maybe they were all cremated.  Just don’t know and not sure I want to go there.  Anyway, these grave sites are also very well kept and very personalized.

We learned that the graves are tended by descendants of the deceased.  In Austria, grave sites are rented, not owned, and bills for the rent are sent out every 10 years.  If no one cares enough to make the payment, your remains are discarded!  The cemetery where the von Trapp family hid out in The Sound of Music was a Hollywood set, but it was inspired by this one.

Even given our huge German breakfast, hunger finally got the best of us mid-afternoon, so we stopped at a conditorei, which is essentially a bakery/coffee shop/cafe.  These are usually tiny, hole-in-the-wall places where the locals stop for their morning coffee and afternoon pastries, but this particular place was very large and served meals, as well.  Such a busy place!  We enjoyed just watching the people and drooling over the pastries, drinks, and food being paraded past us by the waiters.

We walked (and walked and walked) back to our hotel, with my feet killing me.  I swore that I could not, WOULD not, do that kind of walking the next day, and that we would have to figure out the bus system.  And we did!  But that’s another story.  Our hotel had a lovely, large music/game/sitting room where they would serve “Happy Hour” wine and beer in the afternoons upon request.  We requested.  Enjoyed a relaxing hour or so checking our email and Facebook accounts, and enjoying some down time.  Because we had eaten such a late lunch, and also because we didn’t feel like walking the distance we’d have to go to find some dinner, we opted to snack on cashews I’d brought from home and hit the sack early.

The next morning we enjoyed a fantastic breakfast that we chose from an assortment of cheeses, deli meats, cereals, dried fruits and nuts, freshly baked breads, plus coffee and fruit juices.  After consulting with our hosts, we walked about three blocks to catch a bus to Alt Salzburg (old town) to see the sights.  There was so much to see and do!  This town reminded me a lot of a more upscale Heidelberg.  Many of the streets were open to foot traffic only.

We visited and photographed several churches.  In one, they were conducting an infant baptism in the forward altar area.  We sat down in a pew in the back of the church and just watched for a while.  I was impressed by one tradition we observed:  family members standing, one-by-one, before those present for the baptism and making a short speech.  I assume that they were making promises as to how they would help raise the baby to be faithful Christians.  Whatever it was, I thought it was wonderful, and considered it a privilege to be allowed to observe this sacred moment.

One particularly spectacular church was the Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom), which was one of the first Baroque buildings north of the Alps, and was consecrated in 1628.  The dome, pictured to the right, is surrounded by the tombs of 10 archbishops from the 17th century.  Each of four balconies contains an organ, and Mozart was the organist here for two years. Steps in the Cathedral lead down into a low-ceiling crypt, which contains tombs and a chapel reserved for prayer (see below).

We were a bit confused by two different houses, one on each side of the river, claiming to be the birthplace of Mozart. The one on the “old town” side of the river is shown below.  Maybe neither is the original–who knows?

John says the one on the “new town” side of the river is just a former residence of the composer, but I truly think the sign says “birthplace.”

We headed off to the market square to find some lunch, and enjoyed curry wurst, which is essentially a huge hot dog on a roll, with curry powder mixed in with the mustard.  Deeeeelish! The vendor in the picture to the right is serving up some mustard on a wurst.

There are always interesting and unusual things to see at these markets, from tacky souvenirs to fresh fruits, veggies, meats, cheeses, and baked goods.  Makes for good picture taking, and could provide lots of temptation to buy.

Atop the cliffs above the town, 400 feet above the Salzach River, is the Hohensalzburg Fortress, or castle.  The fortress dominates the skyline and offers incredible views.  About 300 nights a year, musical concerts are held there.  Visitors can get there either by foot (stairs) or via the funicular, an elevated train that goes pretty much straight up.  We opted not to go up–a “seen one, seen them all” kind of thing, perhaps, but mostly we were just tired.  We had every intention of touring St. Peter’s Church, but that was not to be.  More on that in a later post.

We knew that to get back to our hotel, we had to cross the river, since it appeared from the schedule that the bus only went only one way on either side of the river:  approximately East (away from our hotel) on the Old Town side where we were, and West (toward our hotel) on the newer side of town.  John felt sure that if we got on the Eastbound bus, it would eventually cross the river and take us back toward the hotel.  We hopped on the bus, so proud of ourselves for having bought a 24-hour pass the afternoon before.  We weren’t too sure when the 24-hours began, but it seemed to be when it was first used, rather than when it was purchased.

The bus kept heading East for a couple of miles, until it was obvious that we were heading out of town.  I turned around and could hardly believe my eyes–we were the only people left on the bus, and we had no earthly idea where we were going!  We kept consulting our map and wondering where we would finally end up.  We were greatly relieved when the driver pulled into a “turnaround” bus station and stopped.  John said, “Go talk to him!”  I said, “Me?  Why do I have to talk to him?  Why don’t YOU talk to him?”  But of course that meant attempting to speak German and he would NOT, so I gathered up my courage and approached the young man, asking if he spoke English.  Well, he understood a few words, so in my pidgin German I showed him where on the map we wanted to go, and in his pidgin English he assured me he was eventually going to cross the river and take us within a few blocks of our hotel.  WHEW!  The panic subsided and we enjoyed the view from our window as we headed toward our home-away-from-home.

Walking back to the hotel from the bus stop, we walked past a jazz club that used to be headquarters for the Austrian Communist Party once upon a time (see picture on left).  We also passed a nice little local restaurant about two blocks from the hotel, and decided to see if we needed a reservation for dinner, since it was Saturday night.  The hostess took our names and gave us a reservation for 6PM.  We availed ourselves of “happy hour” once again, and then rested in our room until time for dinner.  There were only a handful of tables in the restaurant side of the establishment.  The other room, which we could see from our table, was a bar where locals, including the owner of our hotel, sat drinking beer and visiting.  Our meal was quite enjoyable–delicious food and interesting entertainment as we watched other patrons come and go.  When we got back to our room, we were ready to crash–and so we did!  We knew a busy day was in store for us the next morning.

Travel Tip of the Day: For reasons of personal safety, do what you can to blend in with the locals!  Even though it’s probably obvious from the moment you open your mouth, it’s never a great idea to advertise the fact that you’re an American, no matter how proud you are of that fact.  We’ve been told that one sure sign you’re an American is if you’re wearing white athletic/jogging/walking shoes–so we don’t!  Another security tip:  do NOT travel with expensive jewelry, or carry so much that you can’t keep a hand on your purse and/or camera at all times.  Women should never wear a shoulder bag, unless it’s one that can be carried across the body and held close to and in front of the body.  And men, don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket!

Since we only got German TV stations most of the time, we were oblivious to the terrorist warnings that were being broadcast for American tourists until our very last day.  In reality, there is not much you can do if crazy people want to threaten an entire nation, but you CAN do a lot to keep a low profile while you’re traveling.

Our Amazing “Room”

Our amazing room at the Hotel Bavaria in Berchtesgaden was listed as a “Romantic Room,” whatever that was supposed to mean.  Turns out it was an entire apartment that occupied half of the top floor in the hotel.  Our guess is that it used to be either the owner’s apartment, or a mother-in-law’s residence.  We had a complete kitchen, a huge living room, large bedroom and a bathroom that was almost as large as our Tacoma kitchen!  Most German bathrooms are so tiny you can barely turn around, so this was definitely a departure from the norm.

The bathroom contained a jetted tub, separate shower, double sink, granite countertops, twinkle lights in the ceiling, and a washing machine!  We’d been on the road for about 10 days, so were ecstatic to see the washing machine, UNTIL we were informed that it did not work.  I personally think they just disconnected it to prevent possible flooding and water damage.  The proprietors offered the use of their own washer for a mere €5 per load, approximately equivalent to $7.  I opted for washing a few things out in the bathroom sink and hanging them on the towel warming rack to dry. The warming rack seems to be a fairly standard feature in German bathrooms, and serves a double purpose as a place to dry the undies you wash out in the sink.

The apartment was done in a rustic, lodge-like motif with wood paneling on the walls throughout.  The balcony off our living room looked out onto the river below, with that gorgeous, pale aqua water.  The electric tea pot in the kitchen heated water to a boil in less than a minute.  The only negative thing about the entire place, besides its distance from “town,” was the lack of adequate lighting.  I don’t think any of the light bulbs were greater than 40 watts (except, of course, for the bathroom), which just drove me crazy.  I guess that’s how they save money and thus can offer such a huge suite of rooms at such an incredibly low rate.  I believe the rates here were the second lowest of all the places we stayed, and as usual, a wonderful German breakfast was included.  Once again, hooray for Booking.com!

Berchtesgaden

Woohooo!!!! Just a few more posts to go!  Five weeks have passed and my memory of our trip’s details is fading quickly.  I truly need to find the time to get this finished.

On Thursday we left Rothenburg and drove to Berchtesgaden, a lovely little Bavarian town that is at the southeastern tip of Germany, beyond Munich and very close to the Austrian border.  John was there many times during his time in Germany with the military, but I don’t remember ever having been there.  Berchtesgaden is at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, and the landscape is very different from what we saw during the first part of our trip:  Alpine meadows, looming mountain peaks, half-timbered chalet-style houses with bright flowers still blooming in the window boxes, and pale, milky aqua water flowing in the river that runs through the town.  Lovely!  Once upon a time there was a large military presence in this area, but that is not the case today.  Most of the military facilities, hotels, and such have either been torn down or relinquished to the Germans.

Obersalzberg, a quiet mountain retreat just a few miles outside Berchtesgaden, became the southern headquarters of Hitler’s government.  To reach the Obersalzburg complex, we drove for miles and miles, up, up, up and navigated one hairpin turn after another.  In the 1920s, just out of prison, Hitler checked into a hotel here to finish his famed “Mein Kampf.”

In the 1930s, the Fuhrer took this place for his personal mountain retreat consisting of 80 buildings, where the major decisions leading up to WWII were crafted. Almost everything was destroyed by the Allies between 1945 and 1952.  There are segments left for tourists to see, but we didn’t make it up to the famous Eagle’s Nest, a chalet that was given to Hitler in 1939 for his 50th birthday.  It cost a fortune to build, but Hitler visited there only 14 times, supposedly because he suffered from vertigo. Today it is primarily a restaurant that donates its profits to charity.

After checking in at the Hotel Bavaria (pictured on the right), we walked up a winding hill (pictured below) into town.  We spent time walking around, eating, taking pictures, and such before heading back to the hotel.  We thought we knew our way back, but quickly found out that we didn’t!  Took the wrong street and found ourselves about 1/2 mile from where we wanted to be.  We stopped a couple to ask directions, and about 15 minutes later we were relaxing in our room.

When I say “we” asked directions, of course I mean ME, because John refused to speak a word of German on the trip, with the exception of an occasional “danke,” which means “thank you,” or “bier,” which doesn’t need translating.  And he’s the one who once upon a time studied German for three years and lived there for eight!  What’s wrong with this picture?  I’m sure glad I checked those German tapes out of the library a couple of months before we went, just to brush up on something I hadn’t used in more than 30 years. Thank goodness I was able to dredge up enough words to order food, locate bathrooms, do a bit of shopping, and ask (and somewhat understand!) directions.  And most Germans our age and younger have been made to study English in school, so between their English and my German, we managed to get along.

Travel Tip of the Day: Beverages in Germany are expensive, no matter what you drink, as they seem to be in most European countries.  In German restaurants, bottled water, soda pop, beer, and wine are all close to the same price, which means cheap wine & beer, and expensive water & pop.  So you may as well drink what you want!  I did balk at paying $4 or so for a bottle of water, so we saved our bottles and refilled them in our hotel rooms.  Still, I know we didn’t drink nearly as much water as we are used to doing at home, and I always felt a bit dehydrated.  The upside was that I wasn’t looking for a bathroom every hour or so . . .