Tag Archives | historical figures

My Only Comfort in Life

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

When I was in third grade I started to attend weekly catechism classes at my church, something I would do until I graduated from high school. At the time I thought children all over the world did pretty much the same thing.

In catechism classes we memorized the 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, a doctrinal statement published in 1653, in a city called Heidelberg, in what is now Germany. It’s a lovely medieval city. I have been there, and I hope you are able to visit someday as well. Continue Reading →

Comments { 2 }

Those Embarrassing Names


(For a few months now I have been reading about and researching my ancestors, the women and men who came before me and passed down to me my name, my ethnic identity, my DNA, and of course my faith. Here’s a sample chapter from the new book which I’m – tentatively – calling “Letter to My Grandchildren.”)

Many of the people I knew when I was growing up had odd-sounding names. Not distinguished sounding at all, like I wanted them to be. The names were slightly embarrassing, I thought, as though in a previous life I had grown up with much better people, maybe in a much higher social class.

There wasn’t a Henry David Thoreau in the bunch. Or a Harriet Beecher Stowe. Those names and a lot of others like them always sounded remarkable to me, like you’d want to know them and read their books and be like them. Continue Reading →

Comments { 14 }

Dachau and my friend John O’Melia

After visiting European cathedrals, castles, gardens, and museums, I finally visited my first concentration camp on a cloudy and cold Friday afternoon in April. Continue Reading →

Comments { 12 }

Stumbling upon the Stolpersteine

index (25)During my intensive language learning last week at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, I went for walks at the lunch break – Mittagspause! – to rest my weary brain and to learn a little about where I was.

As it turned out, I was in an interesting place – near Alexanderplatz and the Hackescher Markt in what was (until 1989) East Berlin. Continue Reading →

Comments { 2 }

One more thing about that Luther pilgrimage

Luther's death mask

Have I mentioned that I’m not a big fan of Martin Luther?

I returned a few days ago from a series of meetings in Berlin with other pastors serving international churches.  The trip included some sight-seeing in Wittenberg, Herrnhut, and Dresden – in other words, Luther (and Count von Zinzendorf) country.

What seemed obvious was that the German government is gearing up for a big celebration in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the year Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door.  Buildings are undergoing renovations, tour guides are sharpening their monologues, and even the gift shops are expanding their inventories.

Luther beer, anyone?

I knew a few facts about Luther’s life and teachings before the trip – the fierce anti-Semitism of his last years, for example. But a few facts were new to me. His attacks on the Catholic church were not quite as brave as I had been led to believe. Jan Hus was burned at the stake a century earlier for what the Catholic church called his “heresies,” but the biggest threat to Luther’s life came from overeating.

At one stop our guide was asked why a mostly secular country like Germany would be so keen to preserve Luther’s memory.

The guide, who had a brand-new Ph.D. in German history and was eager to demonstrate what he knew, especially with a group of mostly-Lutheran pastors, had a quick and unexpected answer. Luther, he said, is remembered in twenty-first century Germany not so much for the Reformation but for his translation of the Bible into German.  Before Luther’s German Bible, we were told, the German language was a series of dialects and not really a national language at all.

The new Bible standardized the language.

I’m not sure why that statement didn’t affect me at the time. Maybe it was because we were hurrying on to the next important Luther artifact. The death mask, maybe? But today, while working on my sermon for Sunday, it suddenly occurred to me that Luther would be devastated.

Really? After a life devoted to teaching the Christian faith, he is remembered today mainly for his contributions to German grammar and spelling?

I’m speechless. (And for a preacher that’s a serious matter.) I’m actually starting to feel sympathetic to the man.

(Photo: That’s Luther’s death mask, made following his death on February 18, 1546, in his hometown of Eisleben. I know, right?)


Comments { 8 }

The ‘Living Last Supper’

last supper again

I’m not exactly sure anymore whose idea it was or where the idea came from. I doubt that my church was the first to do it, but my church would have been among the first to try it. This was in the early 1990s.

And that’s astonishing when you think about it, since mainline churches in the U.S. aren’t known for bold liturgical moves – or bold moves of any kind.

The idea I’m referring to is the chancel drama widely known as the “Living Last Supper.”  While the script for the drama seems to vary a great deal from church to church, the visual part is fairly consistent. And that’s because the whole point of the thing is to end up with a visual tableau that closely resembles the Leonardo da Vinci painting which survives today (barely) in Milan, Italy.

I did a quick Google search just now and discovered not only that the “Living Last Supper” is widely performed in churches throughout the U.S., but that production values – lighting, costumes, set design, etc. – have dramatically increased.

Looking back, my church’s first attempt was amateurish in many ways and succeeded mostly because of its sincerity.

About six weeks or so before Maundy Thursday, I remember finding 12 men (13 if you count Jesus, though his was mostly a non-speaking role) who would play Jesus’ disciples.  I don’t recall that anyone turned me down.

We had no script, as I recall – only a sense of where the drama needed to end. So, each man essentially wrote his own part. Little is known for sure about the disciples, but legends abound. And with a little creative license, a script of sorts soon came together.

On Maundy Thursday evening each disciple appeared, stood alone in the spotlight, spoke movingly about who he was and why he followed Jesus, and then took his place behind the table. After the 12 had taken their place, the lights went out for a few seconds, and when they came up, voila! A near-perfect match for the painting.

That first night I distinctly remember a gasp from the congregation, an audible in-take of breath, as the image registered.

Since that first attempt, one other church I have served has presented the drama, but the result is always the same – yes, the audiences love it, but the actors themselves have a transforming experience. It’s one thing of course to commit a few lines to memory and, with no community theater experience, stand in front of a few hundred spectators and recite those lines.

But even more astonishing is to enter into the experience – to be Peter, or John, or Judas, to embody those roles so completely that they can imagine themselves being there, sharing the meal, and – this is the thing – betraying their teacher and friend.

After that first performance I went back to the “make-up room” and sat with the men for nearly an hour. No one wanted to move. I think they were in awe of what they had done.

And so was I.

(Photo: According to Wikipedia, da Vinci’s Last Supper “is a late 15th-century mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. It is one of the world’s most famous paintings, and one of the most studied, scrutinized, and satirized.” It’s also in better condition today than the photo suggests. The latest restoration was an extensive one.)

Comments { 7 }

Tina Turner and me

Tina Turner newly swissed

No, I haven’t met Tina Turner. I’m hoping to, of course, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Other people I know say that they have spotted her at the grocery store, and since she lives just two train stops away from where I live, it’s only a matter of time.

What will I say when we finally meet? That’s the thing, isn’t it? What do you say to someone like Tina Turner, who probably moved to Switzerland to avoid people like me, people who get all star-struck and then say dumb things around celebrities.

My track record is not good.

On a short vacation a few years ago to Ixtapa, Mexico, Susan and I stayed at a resort hotel that was host to a celebrity golf tournament, and you’ll never guess who I met at the elevator one day. Give up? It was Dick Van Patten. Yes, him! Remember his role as family patriarch Tom Bradford on the TV sitcom Eight is Enough?

Anyway, I smiled and put out my hand to press the up button on the elevator, and Mr. Van Patten thought I was reaching out to shake his hand, so he took my hand graciously and shook it. We said “hi,” a moment that I’m sure he still cherishes deeply.

That was my brush with celebrity.

But Tina Turner is different. She grew up in the American South, was raised by grandparents in a strict Baptist church, and in adulthood has rather publicly embraced Buddhism, even saying that this new faith helped her through difficult times, of which she seems to have had more than her share. Actually, she has called herself a “Buddhist-Baptist” and says that, when she prays, she prays in both a Baptist and Buddhist style which, I have to say, makes me all the more curious. Pastors are attuned to statements like that.

So, I would very much enjoy meeting Ms. Turner, and if I could manage to avoid the awkwardness I experienced with my dear friend Dick Van Patten, I would enjoy having a conversation with her about her spiritual life.

She has one – a spiritual life, that is – for which I’m grateful.  And I would love to know more, if she would be willing to talk.

And then, because I can’t help myself in situations like that, I would probably ask her if she would consider singing at my church – not a concert, but a gospel song, in worship, just one Sunday morning, please. You can’t blame me for dreaming.

(Note: For other posts like this one, click on the “historical figures” tag. You’ll find posts about George Washington, Picasso, Pope Francis, and others.)

Comments { 2 }

Pat Robertson and me

pat robertson

I never thought I would be saying thank you to Pat Robertson, the American Christian broadcaster, for one of his public pronouncements, but today I’m – well, it surprises me to say so – in basic agreement with what he said.

Of course Robertson and I agree on a great deal when it comes to Christian faith – that Jesus Christ is our lord and savior, for example – but occasionally, over the last several years, there have been some cringe-worthy moments when I wanted to distance myself as far as possible from him, a painful thing to do with a brother in Christ. (His comment that Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people in and around New Orleans, was God’s judgment on American abortion policy was particularly difficult for me.)

But today I’m grateful for his courage.

On Tuesday night, in case you missed it, Bill Nye (known in the U.S. as ‘the science guy’) debated Ken Ham at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Ham (an Australian) is what is known as ‘a young-earth creationist.’ He takes a very literal view of the opening chapters of Genesis.

Let’s acknowledge up front that the debate was short on science and long on entertainment. Beyond that, the audience was decidedly on Ham’s side – not surprising given the venue – and seemed to be looking for applause lines whenever Ham spoke. The winner, if there was one, was more than likely the person you agreed with at the outset.

So, maybe the only question to answer in the end was not who won, but was the cause of Christ and his kingdom advanced in any way?

And here is where I find myself agreeing with brother Robertson who was quoted as saying, ‘Let’s be real, let’s not make a joke of ourselves.’ I’m afraid that what happened Tuesday night was a spectacle which portrayed the Christian faith in the worst light possible.

If I had guessed as to Robertson’s views, I would have thought he was closer to Ham than he turned out to be. But that’s just the thing: within mainstream Christianity today, there are many different ways of describing the origins of the universe. Some agree with Ham, but many do not. Some would describe themselves as ‘theistic evolutionists.’ Others subscribe to something called ‘intelligent design.’ And still others (such as the geneticist Francis Collins) would say that they are in basic agreement with the results of science and that faith exists to answer different kinds of questions – why, as opposed to how, the universe came into being. You would not have known from Ham’s comments on Tuesday that there was any discussion at all within Christian circles about this issue.

After the church’s experience with Galileo (it took only four centuries for the Catholic Church to acknowledge Galileo’s enormous scientific contributions), you would think that Christians would be a bit more modest in their engagement with the scientific world.

‘Let’s be real, let’s not make a joke of ourselves.’ And to to that I would add, ‘Let’s be more mindful about the ways we engage the culture around us.’

(Note: For the life of me I can’t find any exclamation point on this new European keyboard. That may be the kernel for a new blog post – and what it says about my host culture – but for now I feel just a bit limited in the way I express myself. There are other formatting peculiarities too. Please be patient. As with the train system here, it’s taking me a while to learn my way around.)

Comments { 4 }

Why do people put up creches at Christmastime?


So far I’ve stayed out of the “white Santa” and “white Jesus” controversy.  Aren’t you glad?  Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that the topic is getting as much attention as it is.

A more uplifting, maybe even inspiring topic?  Why do people put up crèches at Christmastime, anyway? 

Stay with me here.  This is good.

The following is by L.V. Anderson, an assistant editor at Slate.  She covers food and drink for that publication, but apparently has a few other interests as well:

Blame St. Francis of Assisi, who is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223. The only historical account we have of Francis’ nativity scene comes from The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk who was born five years before Francis’ death. According to Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”) Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.

While this part of Bonaventure’s story is dubious, it’s clear that nativity scenes had enormous popular appeal. Francis’ display came in the middle of a period when mystery or miracle plays were a popular form of entertainment and education for European laypeople. These plays, originally performed in churches and later performed in town squares, re-enacted Bible stories in vernacular languages. Since church services at the time were performed only in Latin, which virtually no one understood, miracle plays were the only way for laypeople to learn scripture. Francis’ nativity scene used the same method of visual display to help locals understand and emotionally engage with Christianity.

Within a couple of centuries of Francis’ inaugural display, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe.

Two thoughts: One, Francis needed permission – from the pope, no less – to set up this first living nativity? Oy. And I complain about the bureaucratic nightmare of getting new ideas approved in the church.

But, more important, I am struck by Francis’ creativity and passion for communicating the good news of the gospel story. Instead of arguing over the exact tint of Jesus’ complexion, maybe we could deploy some of that passion in this direction.

Comments { 6 }

Nelson Mandela and Me

(Back in June, when Nelson Mandela was in poor health, I posted this, and it seems fitting to post it again.  Mandela died today at the age of 95.)

South Africa 2012 057

With Nelson Mandela, the former of President of South Africa, in failing health and with his family asking for prayers, I find myself remembering an afternoon last November when I took a ferry boat ride to Robben Island and saw where Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he spent in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the government.

It was an afternoon I won’t forget.

I was in South Africa for a little sight-seeing and some mission work.  I thought that meant seeing a few lions and elephants before visiting the church where we had dug a fresh-water well.  The visit to Robben Island had not been on the itinerary, but when the opportunity came up I took it.  And I’m glad I did.

Robben Island is 6.9 kilometers west of Cape Town and is visible from Table Mountain.  It’s close enough to the mainland to be seen, but too far away for anyone to escape in the cold and treacherous waters that separate the island from the mainland.  It was used as a maximum-security prison until 1991, and then as a medium-security prison until 1996 when it was closed for good.  Today it’s a destination for tourists like me.

Our guide inside the prison was, like Mandela, a former inmate.  In fact, all of the guides are former inmates.  They and their families live on the island, which is quite beautiful for a place that’s always been used to isolate and torment political prisoners.

Since most of the inmates were sentenced to hard labor, we were driven to the mines where they worked.  We learned that their work consisted of moving large piles of rocks from one point to another, and then moving them all back again, over and over.  The work was designed to break their spirits.

But, miraculously, it didn’t.

Instead the men began to dream of a new South Africa.  We were shown a large hole in the side of the mine and were told that at lunchtime the men sat in there to escape the sun.  It was there that they wrote the first draft of the new constitution.

As we walked around, it was clear that we were on holy ground.  The African National Congress, the party that Mandela led, has come to see Robben Island much as Americans see and experience Independence Hall in Philadelphia.  Their national history now runs through that island.

Pictured above is the cell where Mandela spent most of those 18 years he was on the island.  The group I was with – made up mostly of South Africans – stood for a long time outside looking in.  Many of them had tears in their eyes.  I hesitated to snap a picture, much as I would inside a church, for fear of offending them.  But they understood, and they seemed to be grateful that I wanted to know what happened here.

South Africa is far from perfect.  It has many problems.  But what has happened in the last 20 years is astonishing, and Mandela was responsible for much of it.  His death will be a loss for that country and for all of us.

(For more blog posts about historical figures and me, see George Washington and Me, Florence Nightengale and Me , and Picasso and Me.)

Comments { 5 }