Alone in a German Church

The year 2019 found us moving to Germany due to my husband’s new job assignment. Even though we were both retirement age, the spirit of adventure was calling. Who wouldn’t be excited at the prospects of living in Europe for three years? Oh, the places we could go…the things we could see! Little did we realize at the time that within a few short months there would be a worldwide pandemic and everything would literally shut down – well, almost everything.

The magnificent cathedral in Wiesbaden suffered extensive damage during the war

We soon discovered, that no matter where we went, one thing remained open – the church doors. The doors remained open, and the bells continued to ring, calling the faithful to worship. Of course, strict regulations were in place for congregational meetings. Social distancing and the wearing of masks quickly became a way of life, but the doors remained open throughout the day for passing tourists or for individuals seeking solace and quiet meditation.

Speyer Cathedral -“Why do you design such an intricate design of a bird for the top of the church spire, when no one will ever see it?’ an artisan was asked. “Because God will see it,” he responded.

As we explored various towns with empty streets, the church bells always invited us to step inside sacred walls for a few minutes of reflection. There is nothing that so defines the beauty and majesty of Europe as its cathedrals. As a passing tourist, you walk into these massive structures and you are instantly swallowed up in a cavernous sanctuary surrounded by exquisite stained-glass windows, gilded altars, wooden carvings of saints masterfully crafted, and priceless works of art and paintings of Madonna and Child. You are enveloped in flying buttresses, ribbed vaults and pointed arches. The beauty and majesty of it all can almost be exhausting and overwhelming. I am reminded of a quote from Mark Twain as he visited the art galleries and cathedrals of Europe: “We have seen famous pictures until our eyes are weary with looking at them and refuse to find interest in them any longer.”

Cathedral in Rothenburg ob de Tauber

 In all of the grandeur I have encountered in these places of worship, there has always been one thing that arrested my attention. Interestingly enough, it has been something profound in its simplicity. Each and every time I have visited one of these cathedrals, there have always been one or two individuals sitting alone, close to the altar, quietly meditating and praying. It’s a moving experience to walk into an empty, quiet cathedral and find a worshipper. Somehow it touches my heart; so, I’m sure it must touch the heart of God. Once these individuals notice the presence of tourists, they quietly get up and slip out, and you’re left feeling like you have intruded on sacred ground.

St. Ann’s Cathedral in Sulzbach – named after St. Ann, the patron saint of miners
Inside St. Ann’s
The town of Sulzbach where miners once mined for iron ore. They would make their pilgrimage to the church, walking all night in order to arrive in time for morning worship.

I enjoy taking walks in the little village where we live. It is a small town of 2,000 inhabitants and boasts three small churches. Although they are not cathedrals, they are beautiful in their own right. I stopped one day to take in the beauty of the tolling bells at the Evangelical church. A passerby stopped to speak with me, in perfect English, and let me know that I was welcome to enter the church, that it was always open. I walked in and discovered that I had the privilege of being one of those lone worshippers.

The Catholic church in our village of Edelsfeld
Our 800 year old Romanesque style church
Our Evangelical church

 I went and sat on the front pew and soaked in the simplicity of this little church and the beauty of the bells as they continued to peal their welcome. This was the same church my husband and I had visited for a Christmas Eve service, before the coming of the pandemic. My thoughts went back to that night. The church was packed and we had sat in the balcony, tightly scrunched in between strangers…our last such experience before social distancing became a way of life. We had been advised to arrive early if we wanted a seat. For a half hour we sat with other villagers in total silence. No one even whispered. Then the hour arrived for worship and the bells began to ring in their joyful invitation. We strained to understand the words of the minister as he shared the Christmas story. We caught certain words…Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus…come to Bethlehem. We felt a warm and beautiful spirit, although we couldn’t understand everything. I remember being captivated with the tree that decorated the front altar area. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was the simplicity of the tree and lack of gaudiness that attracted me…small white lights, red globes and white snowflakes. A brass ensemble played beautiful renditions of worship. There were several congregational hymns including my favorite, “Silent Night.”

Little roadside chapels can be seen all over Europe

This particular day, sitting there alone, was a wonderful time of reflection. If you’ve never sat alone in a church, I highly recommend it. You’ll be surprised where your mind and your spirit will take you. You will feel the Presence of God, once you quiet yourself. The contemplation of such an experience might actually terrify some people. They don’t like being alone with their thoughts before an omniscient God. Just remember…He is a God of love, full of compassion, and is described as a “God of all comfort.” If you come as a sinner, He is willing and ready to forgive. He is waiting for you with open arms. The doors of the church are always open. They invite you to come in and find rest for your soul.

“Look, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” Revelation 3:20 NLT

Germany (Holy Week 2021)

My husband, Steve, and I visited a wooded path in Ashach today, located in the outskirts of Amberg, Germany. We were invited by our friend, Emma, to visit the Stations of the Cross that had been set up along the trail.

Children, as well as adults, were extended a special invitation to participate in the display. They were asked to submit drawings or artwork representing the Holy Week and the Crucifixion of Christ. These drawings were then displayed from the bushes and tree branches along the path.

The celebration of Easter is of great importance to the citizens of Germany. It seemed, at first, that the government was going to prohibit all church and family gatherings due to the pandemic, but the order was rescinded after a rather strong protest.

Holy Week arrived early this Spring, so most of the trees and bushes have yet to bud, but we did notice a few patches of violets and “liver plant,” as well as several beautiful butterflies that followed us.

At the end of our trail, as we came up on the last station, we were surprised to see that Emma had submitted a copy of one of her own paintings. It depicts a small finch with reddish blotches. The legend states that the finch attempted to pull out the thorns from Jesus’ crown, and drops of blood stained its breast.

In the far background is the church “Wallfahrtskirche Maria Hilf”

After walking the path of the Stations of the Cross, we drove back to the town of Amberg to visit the church on the hill that we had seen from a distance on our hike. Amberg was a Medieval city, first mentioned in 1034. It was an important trading center in the Middle Ages, exporting mainly iron ore and iron products. Next to the beautiful Baroque style cathedral is a Franciscan Monastery, located on what is called the Hill of Our Lady Help of Christians.

The church has an interesting history. It began as a small chapel built during the Bubonic Plague; also known as the Black Plague or Black Death. In the year 1634, up to 40 people a day were dying in the city. The local rector donated a painting of the Madonna and Child, and plans were made to build the small chapel to house the painting, in hopes that it would call parishioners to prayer. A few months later, the plague miraculously stopped. The news of this miracle spread far and wide, and soon pilgrims were making a journey to visit the painting and the chapel. In 1697 construction began on a larger cathedral that included the adjoining small chapel.

A series of stucco Biblical figures, dating back to 1717 line both sides of the sanctuary

The forecourt of the church is characterized by a monumental three-sided staircase of granite steps.

Fresco paintings on the ceiling

The interior of the church has exquisite reliefs and beautiful fresco paintings on the ceiling which describe many Biblical stories. Emma shared an interesting story of one of the murals that depicts a group of people and a dog lying close by. A very well-known artist was commissioned to do the paintings, but he had many students and understudies assisting him. However, only the commissioned artist was allowed to sign his name to the paintings. One of the clever students managed to sneak his name onto the dog’s collar. You can spot the dog in the lower left corner of the middle fresco.

The painting of the original Madonna and Child hangs at the front of the altar

A diorama of the original chapel

The front altar

Visiting the Stations of the Cross today, followed by a visit to the church, caused me to do some serious reflection. I think we have a lot to learn from the survivors of the Bubonic Plague. What was it that caused the miraculous end of the plague; was it not the prayers of the faithful?

 We have now passed the one-year mark of our own plague, Covid19. Things are not much better here in Europe. Now there is news of variants of the plague making an appearance in other parts of the world. Could things get even worse? My question is this: are we Christian believers praying and asking God to intercede for us to stop this pandemic? Or are we looking to our various governments to come up with solutions? I can guarantee you government intervention has its limitations. Man can only do so much with limited resources and limited understanding of this pandemic. Have you heard your pastor or church leaders leading in intercession? Are YOU praying, or are you just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best? God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes he allows plagues to try to get our attention.

Like I said, today just caused me to do some serious reflection.

Peruvian Legacy

I am happy to announce the official launching of my book

Peruvian Legacy

It is my hope and prayer that this book will be a real blessing to you. This story chronicles the years my family and I spent in Peru, South America where my parents served as missionaries. It is a story of love, faith, courage and the healing of a broken heart. All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to Abrigo Andino (Shelter of the Andes), a ministry located in Arequipa, Peru, directed by fellow MK (Missionary Kid) Sharron Hall. This is an outreach to needy young people, and older adults who have special needs. Your comments and reviews will be greatly appreciated, as it will help to promote the book. Thanking you, in advance, for your support. Special thanks to all of you who lovingly encouraged me in the pursuit of this dream these past five years! Please visit my blog page, Peruvian Legacy, to read a few more details and information about ordering. On this page you can read the book’s Prologue which will hopefully inspire you to want to read the rest of the story!

The Ornament of Joy

Joy is the heart’s harmonious response to the Lord’s song of love. A.W. Tozer

My mother passed away in May of 2016. I remember that following Christmas it was hard for me to feel the usual festive, holiday spirit and joy. For most of us, after all, our mothers were the ones who first introduced us to the joys and beauty of Christmas, and many of our fondest childhood memories are wrapped up in this season. I was struggling with trying to feel the joy, this particular Christmas, but I went ahead and decorated our home and our tree anyway; I knew my mother would want me to.

Once the tree was up and decorated, I noticed an empty spot that still needed an ornament, and the thought ran through my mind…Just like the empty spot in my heart. I looked through the boxes lying around on the floor, but no more ornaments were to be found. I went down to our basement to see if I might not find one more ornament stored in another bin. That’s when I came across the Christmas wreath that I had hung on my mother’s bedroom door. In the center of the wreath, I had hung an ornament. Appropriately, it was an ornament of the word “JOY.” Perfect. I went back to the tree and filled the empty spot with the ornament of joy. As I hung the ornament, I was reminded of our Savior who came into this dark world of sorrow and grief, to fill the empty places of our lives with JOY…and after all, wasn’t that what the celebration of Christmas was all about? The angel announced to the shepherds, “Behold, I bring you tidings of GREAT JOY!

 The Psalmist wrote, “In your presence is fulness of joy.” (Psalm 16:11) I decided then and there, that if I indeed had the presence of God with me, then I shouldn’t be harboring grief and sorrow. He hadn’t left me. He had actually promised never to leave me or forsake me. There is a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is temporary and fleeting, but JOY…well, it is beyond defining; you must allow yourself to experience it. If you allow the joy in, it will dispel the pain. The words joy and joyous are found 245 times in the Scriptures. The word rejoice shows up 150 times, and we’re instructed to be joyful and rejoice nearly 400 times! You can choose to be joyful regardless of your circumstances.

The year 2020 has proven to be rather challenging on many fronts. Consciously, or subconsciously, we have grieved through a pandemic, the unexpected loss of friends and loved ones, political turmoil, riots and unrest, lockdowns and shutdowns, economic distress, natural disasters, loss of personal freedoms, and the list goes on. in the midst of all of this trauma, however, I am reminded of the words of Habakkuk: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, YET…I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my savior. (Habakkuk 3:17-18.)

Habakkuk understood the source of his joy, despite the circumstances surrounding him at the time that were rather bleak. This Christmas season, my hope is that you will choose joy…and that despite everything that has happened this year, you and your family will experience a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

The body heals with play, the mind heals with laughter, and the spirit heals with JOY. (A proverb)

One Thousand Apples

My husband and I have three apple trees in our yard, here in Edelsfeld, Germany. It is now mid-November and two of the trees are well past producing their harvest. However, one of them refuses to quit. I believe it is the original version of “The Giving Tree.” It just keeps giving and giving and giving….

This afternoon I was gathering apples in my buckets once more…hundreds of them…or was it a thousand? It is this way every day. The neighbors now run from me when they see me coming, wanting to bless them with more apples. Truth is, these are the best tasting apples I’ve ever eaten in my life. They are red, sweet, crispy and juicy – unlike the tasteless, mushy ones sold at the grocery stores. We have truly been blessed with a bountiful harvest – a bumper crop. I stop and look up at the tree and notice the branches are still loaded, and I’m reminded of a Scripture verse found in the Song of Solomon 2:5 – Comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love. I’m afraid my version would read – Comfort me with love, for I am sick of apples.

All jesting aside, every time I gather up these apples, I am reminded of the abundant blessings that have been poured out on my life. I know there are many people in the world who are starving for even a morsel of food, and would love to sink their teeth into one of these beauties. I think of the story of the young North Korean girl who scrounged for her food and managed to stay alive by eating field mice. My mother became a widow when my brother and I were quite young, and I remember some hard times, but I can honestly say I don’t ever remember going to bed hungry, or not having a warm bed in which to sleep.

I climb up to our balcony to get a birds-eye-view of our tree and see how many more apples might be coming. There are so many still clinging, I can’t even count them, and I’m reminded  of God’s faithfulness…His blessings are too numerous to count…just like my thousand apples. Oh, I haven’t counted them – just an estimate! Some time ago, I decided to keep a gratitude journal and write one thousand things for which I was grateful. I’m now at number 912. I know once I reach one thousand, I will start over on the next thousand.

I look past our tree to the hills that surround our valley and I think back to a time when this village was not quite so peaceful, and people went to bed in blackouts and shivered in fear as the bombs dropped. A memorial plaque stands in front of one of the town churches, honoring lost sons of the war. And that is another one of my thousand blessings: not once have I ever gone to sleep at night in fear for my life. I’ve known nothing but peace in my life. How many people in the world can say that?

Is that why the original owners planted three apple trees, a black-bing cherry tree, a walnut tree and blackberry bushes? Was it this harvest that sustained them during the war years? I am left to wonder. And on and on it goes….counting my blessings. Then I think about another tree…

You see, the original “Giving Tree” was actually planted on a hill called Calvary, and every good and perfect gift flows from that tree. That tree shows us the WAY…the way through the wilderness we sometimes find ourselves in; the way through the darkness into the light; the way home when we are lost. The fruit of that tree is TRUTH that binds itself around our hearts and our minds and protects us from the chaos, evil and deceit that surrounds us in this present world. That tree gives, nourishes and sustains our very LIFE – a life that is eternal. I hope you have this tree planted in your garden – I do and I gather its fruit every day, and I’m always amazed at the abundance of sweetness and goodness. My buckets are overflowing! This tree just keeps giving and giving and giving…it never stops!

So, these are some of my reflections about Thanksgiving and just a few things I am truly grateful for, but it all started with one thousand apples!

Then the land will yield its harvest, and God, our God, will bless us. Psalm 67:6

A Visit to the Borowski Art in Glass Workshop

My husband Steve and I recently toured the Borowski Art in Glass Workshop in Boleslawieck, Poland. It is very different from any other glass blowing we’ve ever seen in that the glass creations are very contemporary with a fun, whimsical twist. All the sculptures tell stories about particular situations that often translate into comical compositions and characters. The workshop is located in a remodeled, century-old building.

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This is a family run shop owned and operated by Mr. Stanislaw Borowski and his sons, Pawet, Wiktor and Stani Jan. We had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Borowski and Pawet during our tour.

Borowski glass gained international recognition in the 1970s with Stanislaw’s engravings and sculptures. There is a photo in the shop featuring the presentation of a Borowski glass sculpture to President Jimmy Carter.

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Mr. Borowski opened his first small shop in 1990, and it now ranks as one of the most acclaimed art glass studios in the world, with appearances in many international exhibits.

During our weekend visit to Poland, we noticed that the soil is very sandy. The Borowskis use a secret formula for their glass making, but I’m sure the native sandy soil of Poland is probably the foundational element.

In an online interview, Mr. Borowski described his difficult, early years of working with glass. His studio was inadequate, cold and icy. He didn’t have proper tools, and had to seek permission to use a diamond saw.

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His creations are rooted in childhood fantasies. His early pieces were small, and he described them as tiny children he had to raise himself, and then give them up.

“There are some of my pieces on display in galleries around the world that I would love to be able to buy back, or steal…but I had to sell them to make a living.”

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“Every step of the way was about gathering knowledge and climbing a ladder.”

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“My work gives me inner satisfaction. It makes me feel complete, like I have accomplished something”

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“It’s up to the public to decide what’s good and what’s bad. ‘Yes, I like that very much,’ or ‘No. I wouldn’t want that in my home.’”

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“All artists need to listen carefully.”

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“I’m not a painter. So I have to remember what I see.”

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“What about the people? They’re still in pieces. What’s the plan? It’s a piece of architecture”

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“When someone asks me what’s the most important medium for my creative work, I always answer “Light!”  – Stani Jan Borowski

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Steve and I were given a special demonstration of some glass blowing. This particular session was the design of a small, whimsical whale. We ended up purchasing one of these whales as a souvenir.

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There is a shop where you can purchase some of these amazing creations, from the smallest pieces to rather large indoor and outdoor sculptures, and there is a garden area that features wooden, clay, metal and glass exhibits of some outdoor sculptures.

All in all, this was an amazing tour, the highlight of which was getting to meet Mr. Borowski and his son Pawet.

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Emma and Her German Garden

IMG_4459First impressions are an intriguing part of life, whether you are experiencing new places or meeting new people. My first impression upon moving to Edelsfeld, Germany was that the residents of our village were not only gardeners, but AVID gardeners who took great pride in their plots of land. Even though my arrival came in early November, when most trees, shrubs and flowers had ceased their growing and blooming, my walks around town and seeing all the neatly cleaned out garden plots assured me that we would be in for a feast for the eyes come spring and summer, and we were not disappointed.

Another first impression was to discover that the German people are genuinely kind and friendly. Being new to this country and to the German language and culture, my husband, Steve, and I were amazingly blessed to meet Emma, a neighbor who lives just a few blocks away. Emma invited us to her Christmas party, sight unseen, based on an email I sent her asking if she would be interested in tutoring us in German. (This connection came about through a “chance conversation” with a total stranger.) We have been in Germany less than a year now, but already Emma has become a dear friend. We have enjoyed dinners, tea, hikes, shopping, plays and concerts together. Steve and I are especially fond of playing with her dog, Ila. Walks with Emma and Ila are not only a pleasure, but a learning experience as she shares her knowledge of native plants, culture and history.

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Shortly after arriving in Germany, I came across the book “Elizabeth and Her German Garden,” by Elizabeth von Arnim, written in 1898. This book reaffirmed my first impression about Germans – they LOVE their gardens! More about Elizabeth later, but that’s where I got the inspiration for this particular blog. I really wanted to document Emma’s amazing garden. Emma was the daughter of farmers, born and raised here in Bavaria, in the little village of Holnstein, a few miles down the road. Her grandparents were also farmers, so hard work and a love for working the soil came naturally to her. Growing up she shared in the farm chores, helping with the cows, chickens and pigs, bailing hay and harvesting potatoes. Once she was finished in her family’s potato field, she would jump on her bike and ride off to her grandparents’ farm to help dig for potatoes in their fields.

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Emma’s ivy covered home in early spring

Emma married and raised three sons here in Edelsfeld, where she and her husband built their home in 1978.  Her father did all the woodwork inside the home, as well as building the framework for the roof. The home is surrounded by a garden, and yard complete with goldfish pond. So…here we go! Come along and have a tour of Emma’s German garden!

We begin by walking out the kitchen door and past the patio table and chairs. Germans, as I believe is true of most people, enjoy eating and relaxing outdoors. Emma picks a plum off one of her trees, carefully removes the pit, and feeds it to Ila, who is following us around. Amazingly, Ila loves plums so much that she literally jumps up and snatches the plums off the lower branches of the tree, eating pit and all.

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Fruit is a staple in most German gardens, as well as vegetables; a carryover from the days not so long ago when people couldn’t afford to buy their produce. If you couldn’t raise your own, it meant going hungry. Besides plum, there is an apple and black bing cherry tree. I must add, every once in awhile our doorbell rings and we are presented with some warm apple fritters, or a slice of cherry or strawberry cake. Emma’s strawberries were some of the sweetest I’ve ever eaten! She grows blackberries, as well. Emma also harvests walnuts from her tree which she uses in baking Christmas cookies, and making caramelized nuts for salad dressing. Next to the trees is a large, open grassy area where her sons’ pony used to graze years ago.

Emma cooks and bakes with everything in her garden, which leads us to the vegetables…tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, green onions, spinach, beet roots, carrots, curry herb, rapunzel, rosemary, fennel, parsley, chives, thyme, and lemon grass.

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In Italy the zucchini blossom is filled with cheese and baked

And what German garden would be complete without flowers? Emma’s flowers are scattered around and in-between all the fruits and vegetables. I’m particularly drawn to the hollyhocks and she shares a humorous story from a friend of hers in Montana. The story goes that in the old days of “outhouses” it was customary to plant hollyhocks around them.  That way when ladies came to visit, they could politely and discreetly ask where the bathroom was by asking, “Have you planted any hollyhocks?”

 

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Wildflowers bloom in every corner, and Emma is quick to remind me that they are important for the bees; even the early spring dandelions are considered important for this reason. The dandelion leaves are used as salad greens, even in some of the nicer restaurants. Emma points out a yellow cone flower which is called a “sun hat” because of its shape. It is considered a healing plant. All the pharmacies have the drops from this flower available to help boost the immune system and it is used in ointments, as well. Another one of her flowers used in medications, creams and ointments is her calendula.

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The sun hat

Other flowers around the garden include tiger lilies, chrysanthemum, anemone, daisies, iris, hydrangeas, sunflowers, morning glories and an interesting blue flower called “widow in the green.”  A large patch of lavender is planted next to the roses to protect them from bugs. Tucked along a sidewall is a patch of thistle which is dried and used in flower arrangements. One other flower I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before is a lavender poppy. Emma reminds me that poppies are native to Afghanistan, and of course the pods contain opium which has had a thriving market in that country for years. However, the seeds from the poppy can also be used for a cooking oil, bread rolls and baking cakes. The more common orange colored poppy Emma refers to as the “Iceland Poppy” as it is one of the few flowers found in Iceland.

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The lavender poppy

I should mention, that Emma collects rain water for her garden, which I have found is quite a common practice with German gardeners. And so ends our tour of Emma’s garden. As I make my way back into the house through the kitchen, I am offered some freshly baked plum cake. To begin with, I am amazed that Emma still finds the time (and energy) to bake, after all of her gardening chores. I find her to be an extraordinary person and a delight to be with. She is a busy mother and grandmother, with some new grandbabies to visit; she is a High School teacher who teaches German, English and Math, and tutors the likes of Americans like Steve and me; she is an avid hiker and walks her dog every day, as well as walking her invalid neighbor’s dog.

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Some of Emma’s watercolor paintings she has designed for her book

She is the author of a children’s book that she illustrated with her own watercolor paintings, and is getting ready to publish her second book; she makes an effort to get to the horse barn several times a week to spend time with her Arabian, Mitrano; she is also a member of a local book club. I have to wonder…where does she find the time to read?

Emma exemplifies to me the “true German spirit”… appreciative of her heritage, industrious, hard-working, organized, friendly and supportive, and a great lover of her garden and nature. Steve and I feel blessed to have her as a neighbor and friend.

And now this brings me back to my original inspiration for this blog, the book “Elizabeth and Her German Garden.” This was a fun and relaxing book to read, but I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone, unless you enjoy reading long passages and descriptions of flowers and the joys and trials of gardening. I did find parts of it rather humorous as the author has a sharp wit, but basically it is a plotless book. The beautiful, descriptive language though, makes it a delightful read, and you’re certainly left with an appreciation for the German’s love of gardening and nature. It is also an interesting commentary on society in the Victorian age. It’s a fun book to read if you’re sitting out in your garden patio with a cold ice tea, which come to think of it…is probably where you need to be if you’re reading this blog!

Following are a few more photos of Emma’s garden, and some quotes from “Elizabeth and Her German Garden.”

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My days seemed to melt away in a dream of pink and purple peace.

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The people round about are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceedingly eccentric, for the news has traveled that I spend the day out of doors with a book, and that no mortal eye has ever seen me sew or cook.

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If it were not for the garden, a German Sunday would be a terrible day.

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The servants wonder why the house should be filled with flowers for one woman by herself, and I long more and more for a kindred spirit. It seems so greedy to have so much loveliness to oneself – but kindred spirits are so very, very rare; I might almost as well cry for the moon. It is true that my garden is full of friends, only – they are dumb.

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Humility, and the most patient perseverance, seem almost as necessary to gardening as rain and sunshine, and every failure must be used as a stepping-stone to something better.

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If Eve had had a spade in paradise and known what to do with it, we should not have had all that sad business of the apple.

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It is so sweet to be sad when one has nothing to be sad about.

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I felt so absolutely happy, and blessed, and thankful, and grateful, that I really cannot describe it.

 

Castle Ruins and the Valley of Death

Castle ruins are common in Germany. You can find them on just about every other high hill. However, my husband Steve and I recently explored one that holds special significance. The castle ruins in Flossenburg, Germany border the Czech Republic, and stand as a sentinel over the infamous Flossenburg concentration camp.Q+FLZVM8TeCItbBqNA27Rw_thumb_a0e

After a steep, rocky climb to reach the top of the hill, you then continue your trek over narrow granite steps to reach the summit of the castle itself. The residential tower on top of the granite rock, equipped with a fireplace, was located around 1100. In the Middle Ages the tower was rebuilt. These castles were always built on the pinnacle of a hill for security purposes and were the residence of the local town sheriff, or knight, who was employed to guard the surrounding villages. The walls of the castle were built with granite from the quarry located hundreds of feet below.

Upon arriving at the summit, there is an amazing view of the valley below and the town of Flossenburg itself, with its charming homes. There is a quietness that rests over the village, with the occasional ringing of church bells. Who could ever imagine that horrific atrocities against man had ever been committed in such a peaceful setting.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a12

At the beginning of our trek, my first observation and comment to my husband was that we were being followed by “my white butterfly.” He’s used to hearing this from me, no matter where we go. It just so happens that I have been followed by white butterflies for years. He turned to me and commented, “You DO understand that it’s NOT your same butterfly that follows you everywhere!”

“Of course it isn’t,” I assured him…but who knows…maybe it is.

We continued to explore the surrounding ruins and came upon an arch. Steve was quick to point out the keystone.

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Without the keystone, the entire arch would collapse.

After some exploration we made our descent into the valley…entering later into the “valley of death.” It’s hard to comprehend that such an idyllic, peaceful village was onceUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a22

the location of a notorious Nazi concentration camp.

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A short time later we made our way through the gates of the Flossenburg Concentration camp. The camp at Flossenburg was opened at the beginning of May 1938; its first prisoners were brought from Dachau. Many of these were political prisoners and hardened criminals.  Later, they were joined by thousands of Jews.  The violent criminals were often goaded to torment the other prisoners.The roll call ground formed the center of the camp. Every morning and evening the prisoners were counted here. Standing at attention, often for hours, meant an additional torture for the undernourished and inadequately clothed prisoners. A gallows was erected on the roll call ground so that executions could be carried out in front of all other prisoners.

One of the main reasons for the choice of Flossenburg for a camp was the significant granite deposits in the area. The aim was to make maximum use of prisoners’ slave labor to dig granite from the quarry to arm Nazi Germany. The stone they quarried was used to build many of the Nazi’s monumental buildings.

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“In the evening, on the return march, each of us had to carry down an enormous roll-stone on our shoulders, because these stones were used to surface the camp yard. My shoulder was bloodied and my jacket was torn open because these sharp-edged stones had been chiseled out of the rocks.” (Quote from a prisoner)

“All day long, we had to drag up boulders of rock, throw them down again, and then drag them back up. If there was frost overnight, then water was poured over the stairs. The next day, we had to drag the rocks up over the slippery ice. It was horrible.” – Frantisek Sulak January 26, 1945

“Although, I left Flossenburg as soon as I could, Flossenburg never left me. For us, former inmates, the events of our past became the foundation of our haunted lives.” – Jack Terry

(Photos and commentary are from the small museum located on site.)UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a9f

Inadequately clothed and lacking all safety precautions, the prisoners were compelled, no matter the weather, to excavate soil, carry out blasting of granite blocks, push trolley wagons, and haul rocks. Accidents were daily and routine events. Backbreaking labor, long work hours, freezing cold, severe malnutrition, and random SS violence led to the death of many prisoners. A work day in the quarry lasted twelve hours, interrupted only by a single break when a thin soup was served. The SS forced prisoners to walk in circles for hours, hauling rocks. Only a few prisoners survived. At the end of the work day, the prisoners carried the bodies of the dead back to the camp.

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The castle ruins can be seen on the hill

After touring the museum, we walked to the back of the camp, still followed by “a white butterfly!” I noticed there were a few carefully planted flowers, but the grounds were mainly covered by wildflowers…which seemed to me a silent memorial from the hand of God, himself. From a distance, we could see the surrounding guard towers.

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The  memorial chapel “Jesus in the Dungeon” was built in 1947 and attached to one of the guard towers. The chapel was built with stones from demolished guard towers.

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The path leading down to the “Valley of Death.” The crematorium is the small white building at the far end.  Center-left is the “Pyramid of Ashes.” There are memorials from many nations leading along the path.

An initiative by a Polish memorial committee led to the establishment of one of Europe’s first concentration camp memorials. This memorial site was laid out to resemble a Christian Stations of the Cross. The entrance is located above the crematorium. The pillars of the camp gate were moved there to to represent the beginning of the prisoners’ suffering. This path leads through the hollow called the “Valley of Death,” past the stations of the execution site and “Pyramid of Ashes.”

Throughout this walk you could feel a “holy awe” and I just fought back the tears. Those visiting the camp spoke in hushed voices. I couldn’t bear to take a picture of the ovens. It just seemed too sacred to be trivialized with a camera. On our walk back out of this sad valley, Steve and I were pleasantly surprised to find this memorial plaque on one of the walls:

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We had not realized this was where Dietrich Bonhoeffer had given his life, and were pleased to see that our government had honored his memory.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who refused to pledge allegiance to the Nazi cause. He is most well remembered for his book “The Cost of Discipleship.” At the break of dawn on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged. As they prepared him for his death, he preached his final sermon. His words were remembered, and later retold, by a captured RAF pilot: “This is for me the end, the beginning of life.” Only two weeks later, April 23, 1945, Flossenburg camp was liberated by the American Army.

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This sign was made by the prisoners to welcome their liberators

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Thanks to the treatment of the American military physician Frank Anker, twenty-five year old Rajala Pinczewska survived.

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The following quotes are all from Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother – Christ is knocking at the door.

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When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

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The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them just as love of God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.

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The biggest mistake you can make in your life is to be always afraid of making a mistake.

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We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.

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Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.

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The person who’s in love with their vision of community will destroy community. But the person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.

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So…according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the “keystone” for preserving community is love. Without this keystone, the arch of community and society will collapse! Jesus Christ summed it up in the two great laws: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31 ) When I look at this photo, I see one half of the arch as the first commandment and the other half as the second commandment, and the “keystone” is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself who holds it all together, and upholds life itself!

I am very grateful to the nation of Germany for preserving these concentration camps and memorials as a reminder to us all of the importance of loving our God and loving, serving and caring for our fellow man. There is wisdom in learning from history.

By the way, the white butterfly followed us all day. Was it the same one? Who knows.

 

Just a Pile of Shells? (Why I Believe in God)

 

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Recently I found myself reading quotes from some rather famous personalities regarding their lack of belief in God. To quote a few, following are some excerpts:

There doesn’t need to be a God for me. There’s something in people that’s spiritual, that’s godlike. I don’t feel like doing things just because people say things, but I also don’t really know if it’s better to just not believe in anything, either. – Angelina Jolie

When I got untethered from the comfort of religion, it wasn’t a loss of faith for me, it was a discovery of self. There’s a peace in understanding that I have only one life, here and now, and I’m responsible. – Brad Pitt

Organized religions in general, in my opinion, are dying forms. There are people who interpret the Bible literally. Literally! I choose not to believe that’s the way. – Bruce Willis

A few other well-known atheist film stars include Katherine Hepburn and Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame. This is only a small, partial list. What is it, one wonders, that makes the rich and famous so prone to atheism, but, that is a topic for another day.

John Lennon penned the lines of this famous song:

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try

No hell below us, above us only sky

Imagine all the people living for today.

Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too..

Imagine all the people, living life in peace.

The telling line in this song is “imagine all the people living for today.” Brad Pitt seems to echo that sentiment…”I have only one life, here and now.” But what if there is more to life than just the here and now? What if life is truly never ending, and there is such a thing as eternity, and you squandered all your wealth, talents and energy on only 70 to 80 years of it? Jesus poses the question this way,

“What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

Jesus also shared the story of the rich fool who had accumulated so much in the way of crops and produce, his barns were too small to contain it all. He boastfully bragged that he would build a bigger barn to store all of his excess, that he might spend the rest of his years in ease and comfort and just sit back, eat, drink and be merry…enjoy life. The only problem with this plan was, that very night God required his soul of him. All the accumulation of his wealth was left to someone else. The larger, looming question was, what reward did he have awaiting him?

George Clooney was quoted as saying, “I don’t believe in heaven and hell. I don’t know if I believe in God. All I know is that as an individual, I won’t allow this life – the only thing I know to exist – to be wasted.” Once again, we see the emphasis on THIS LIFE, but what about the next? He claims he “doesn’t know.” At least he’s honest enough to admit he’s not sure.

So, why take a chance?

Bertrand Russell, the famous atheist, mathematician, pacifist and political activist (1872-1970), was once interviewed and asked what he would say when confronted with the Almighty. His response? …

“Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?”

As a side note, I find it interesting that, although he did not believe in God, he had a question prepared for Him. I don’t have to imagine God’s response as He has already addressed this question in the Holy Scriptures. Let’s take a look:

King David clearly recognized the evidence of God in the natural world around him: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

The Apostle Paul wrote: “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”(Romans 1:20)

If you’ve ever looked up at the stars on a clear night and not felt a hushed and reverent Presence of the Almighty, you, my friend, have a hardened heart. Have you never walked an ocean shore, admired the beauty of a sunset, heard the thundering crash of the waves and not felt a deep stirring in your soul? Have you never wondered who set the boundaries for the ocean, and a million other questions?

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It is perhaps a more fortunate destiny to have a taste for collecting shells than to be born a millionaire.  Robert Louis Stevenson

I’ve always enjoyed beach combing and looking for shells. I remember one time that I chanced on a sizeable pile of shells against a sea wall that had been washed up by the tide. I sat down and combed through the shells for over an hour, totally entranced. I was in awe at the intricacies of design and color. There were perfect cone-shaped spirals of translucent white; shells with red, brown and yellow Indian blanket designs; other shells with every color of a tropical sunset. I had hit the jackpot! I was wishing I could bring in a backhoe and a truck.  I left with a small bag of treasures that I still display in a jar to this day. I will never forget thinking this pile of magnificent shells, of such amazing artistry was hidden under an ocean of water, never seen by human eyes before mine…. God had treated me to a private peek into His art studio just for my own personal joy and pleasure. I walked away with such a sense of the love and Presence of God. How could anyone not believe, I wondered?

 Even the sand beneath my feet was the exquisite work of an artistic hand. Miriam Drennan describes this phenomenon well:

“Have you ever seen photographs of individual grains of sand blown up 250 times their actual size? Some grains look like red gem stones, others look like icicles; some resemble speckled yellow and brown eggs, and still others seem shaped like corncobs, snowflakes and precious gems. Some grains are square, some spherical, and some flat. No two grains are the same – in fact, you’d never know you were even looking at grains of sand if no one told you.”

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The magnified image of grains of sand

 That kind of artistry is humanly unfathomable. It resides in the realm of the supernatural; the same supernatural force that scattered the stars through the heavens and hung the Milky Way.

 Thousands upon thousands of books, poems and songs have been written about the glory of God as seen in nature. Man truly is inexcusable.

Albert Einstein once stated, “I do not believe in a personal God, and I have never denied this, but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. “

 Yes, even Albert Einstein left a big, gaping IF….the structure of the world was something he admitted he had to admire. Can one admire such structure and beauty and still believe it all came about through sheer happenstance?

Yes, I choose to believe in God because of the evidence I’ve seen with my own eyes of that which He has created. It’s overwhelming. It’s incontrovertible. Is this the only reason I believe? No, but it is one very big reason!

“They who dwell in the ends of the earth stand in awe of Your signs; You make the dawn and the sunset shout for joy.” Psalm 65:8 (NASB)

Just count me as one who stands in awe of His signs…one who stands in awe of a pile of seashells.

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To see a world in a grain of sand

And heaven in a wildflower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour. – William Blake

In the Eye of the Storm

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This morning I woke up at 2:15 A.M. Wide awake. That’s been happening a lot lately. I find it interesting that it’s always at the same time. It used to be 3:30. There are times when I realize I ate too much pizza for supper the night before and that I just need to go back to sleep. Other times, like last night, I’m aware there is a Presence, and a Voice of someone wanting to speak to me, and that I need to listen carefully. Now, before some of you get too spooked out…yes, I am one of those who believes God can speak to you. He could speak in an audible voice if He chose to, as He did in Biblical times with Adam and Eve; with Moses on the mount; with Saul of Tarsus who was knocked to the ground and blinded (to try to get his attention.) Elijah was an Old Testament prophet that heard the voice of God. He was told to go stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, and the Lord would pass by. “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a GENTLE WHISPER. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” 1 Kings 19:11-13

More often than not, God now communicates with His children in quiet whispers of the heart, which means you have to be so very, very quiet to hear Him. Maybe that’s why He wakes you up in the middle of the night when there are no distracting lights, no blaring TV or radio, no internet, or a million other weapons of mass distraction. So…you wonder…what did I hear when I was awakened at 2:15 A.M.? From this gentle whisper in my heart I heard the words: JESUS…AT THE CENTER OF THE STORM. The words were so distinct, it was almost as if I had heard them audibly. From this point on I was wide awake, and it seemed as if I was watching a full feature movie playing out various scenes in front of me. When a woman wakes up, wide awake, in the middle of the night, let me tell you – the brain is not quiet. Sometimes I find it quite amusing to see where my mind takes me. At other times, I find it not so amusing, and just wish I could go back to sleep.

Before I go any further, I must warn you…for those who don’t understand how a woman’s mind works. A man compartmentalizes everything neatly in a box. If you were to illustrate a man’s mind you could simply draw a box and place a dot in the center. A woman’s mind, on the other hand, could be illustrated with a box of spilled spaghetti. As I lay awake, contemplating the whisper of my heart, the movie lines played and interwove with each other, like an upended bowl of tangled spaghetti. The first scene that played out was the famous painting “Peace in the Midst of the Storm” by Jack Dawson. This painting depicts a small bird who has found shelter in the cleft of the rock, while a storm is raging. Hidden in the jagged cliffs outside are two images; one of Christ and the other a more sinister looking creature.

Meditating on this scene, the bowl of spaghetti kept filling my box. The next scene to appear was a group of elementary children who had been moved to a hallway for protection from a violent storm. I had remembered seeing this story play out in the news. I heard a group of teachers leading their students in the song “In the Eye of the Storm.”

In the eye of the storm, you remain in control,

In the middle of the war, you guard my soul.

You alone are the anchor, when my sails are torn,

Your love surrounds me, in the eye of the storm…

I find my peace in Jesus’ Name.

I was reminded of the storm chasers who fly their planes through hurricanes as they chart their path. It is so amazing to see them fly through the eye of the storm where there are blue skies,  sunshine, and perfect calm.

As this song faded away, I saw the scene of a man and his dog on a sail boat. I remembered reading this true story years ago. They had started out for a day of sailing under sunny skies, when the weather began to turn. As the man changed his course to head back home, the wind picked up and the waves began to toss violently. He feared for his life and the life of his dog. In his panic, he briefly looked down at his dog and was amazed to see perfect peace and love in his eyes. He was not the least bit stressed or agitated. He was just keeping his gaze focused on his master. The man began praying and asking God to forgive him. “My dog has more faith in me, than I have in you,” he confessed. “Help me keep my eyes on you!” The story had a happy ending, and the man learned a lesson in faith that day, from his dog.

The focus of the action then shifted to a similar scene. It was the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus and His disciples were caught in a violent storm in their small boat. Here, too, the disciples feared for their lives. In their panic, they awakened their Master. Jesus spoke to the storm, “Peace, be still,” and immediately the waves calmed.  Jesus couldn’t understand why the disciples were so afraid, and rebuked them for their lack of faith.

At this point my mind was beginning to calm and I was beginning to feel drowsy again, but not before two verses of Scripture appeared on the screen:

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26::3…

and with this one, I turned over and went back to sleep…

I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O lord, make me dwell in safety. Psalm 4:8

So, I don’t know if there’s anyone out there that needs to be encouraged or reminded of this today, but don’t ever forget…Jesus is in the eye of your storm. He is your center, and it’s there you will find your peace. Find your center.  Find your center and keep your gaze steadfast on your Master. Find your peace in Jesus’ Name. It’s “a peace that passes all understanding.”