Actually not the dog house, but the dog bed. The warm weather (mid to high 30’s) mixed in with humidity makes for some changes. As I don’t have any administrative assistance in the sense that I had in a previous parish (Hilary telling me what appointments were on and taking care of all the Sunday service sheets for two congregations) I find myself this week sitting behind a computer more than I would like to. This administrative load is not an onerous duty most weeks, as I have my routines that I stick by to make sure I don’t get snowed under. However, as I plan to take three weeks of holiday I am planning further in advance which means making sure the visiting clergy are well prepared, the volunteers ready, and the presentation built up for Sunday worship (we don’t use any paper for our worship services). Being in the heat and sticking to the chair and desk are now hazards of the job, which is where the dogs bed comes into action.
My wife found at Aldi or Lidl a cheap cooling mat for the dog. Apparently this extraordinary mat is non-toxic which is a big plus when it comes to our dog Skippy who still tends to chew up beds. The blue cooling dog bed turns out not to be at all popular with the dog who viewed it with deep suspicion, preferring to lay motionless on the tile floors as a way of remaining cool. Today I decided to try out the dog mat at my desk having it migrate under foot so that I’d feel cooler. Just like a dog which creeps with affection slowly up onto your laps as you sit on the sofa the dog bed has made its way to my chair and it really does work. Whatever magic is inside this blue pad is certainly working.
It is too bad that all of us cannot find relief from the heat. The river that runs through the village has dried up for the most part, only pools remain at this point downstream and a smell of decaying fish fills the air every so often. Two little boys were busy with net and bucket taking some of the trout out and carrying them up stream to larger pools of water. Apparently this is a normal summer occurrence to have the rivers run dry around Freiburg (so far it has happened every year we have lived here), but it still surprises me. Waterfalls run wild year round in the river behind my parents house in Canada, even with small pools that we can swim in when the weather is warm. Even when we don’t have the rivers running dry there are certainly other concerns to be aware of when out along the trails.
In the church we have had, and will continue to have a run on baptisms. As we do not own the building, rather rent from the German church, the protestant tradition of having a shallow bowl of water on the Lord’s table as a baptism font. Certainly, not every church is in this situation as I have seen plenty of massive old stone fonts in other churches, but this is not the local experience at least in our church building. Water is a unique symbol where we can say it can give and take. Too little water is not good, neither is too much water. Freiburg may feel dry, but Japan seems to be washed out. After a hot Sunday baptism service with a church so full of people that there was standing room only I was secretly thinking that a parishioner might do the church equivalent to the sports team prank in which team members pick up the large field side drink cooler and pour it all over the coach after wining the game. Even though the weather is hot, I still pray that that one child (and others) experienced the refreshing life-giving waters of baptism.
In Germany students receive Religious Education as a weekly subject and the classes are usually divided into Roman Catholic and Protestant, with a small group of ‘others’ that have instruction in another religion, or none at all. The classes may be taught by specialized teachers and/or clergy from the local area. I know from my colleagues in the local German churches that a great deal of their time is spent in classrooms. The Religion teacher for my youngest daughter got in contact with me to see if I would be interested in teaching the class about the Anglican Church. I think the words, ‘fear and trepidation’, would nicely describe my agreement to come on a Thursday morning to speak about the Anglican Church.
I spent some time going over what I might like to say. What, in a nut shell, could be something easy enough for both the students to understand, and that I would feel comfortable speaking about in German? Needless to say I steered away from the Doctrine of the Trinity and Atonement theology because even in English I would have a difficult time with explanations.
Well on the morning of the class I packed my laptop into the bag and my daughter and I set off on our bicycles toward school at a little before 7:00 AM. As we sped along the bike path I came up next to my daughter and said, “we can take it slower if you want.” To which she replied, “Why? This is my usual speed.” Well, as we zoomed along with me clearly lagging behind we made it to the school where many of the students gathered at the front door waiting for the classrooms to be unlocked and to greet their teachers.
The Religion teacher greeted both myself, and another father who would be speaking about an ‘Evangelical Free Church’ in the area, as he worked as the youth pastor beyond his usual ‘day-job’ as a health professional. As the classroom door swung open the other father and I were presented with the Audio Visual corner which was a nest of wires and plugs for all sorts of makes and models of computer. Having both laptops tested out and working I graciously let the other father present first. Phew! I though, I don’t have to present first, as I was already nervous as it was.
The students were very well behaved. A ritual of lighting a candle and passing to each person gave the students a chance to say what they were grateful for, and what concerns they may have in their lives. I did not expect to be passed the candle, but soon found myself with it shining brightly in my hands. I stammered out that I was glad to be here, but that I was also a bit nervous speaking German since a great deal of my work is conducted in English. This seemed to break the ice for myself and for the students. One student happened to be a new arrival from elsewhere in Europe and also finds learning German a real challenge. It seemed to brighten this pupils day when an adult made all sorts of grammatical errors. Then it was my turn to feel more relaxed as the other father grasped the small candle and said that he also felt a bit nervous, so we were all a bit on common ground to begin with.
I watched with growing anxiety the first presentation which had a lot of slides and copious notes. I began to think that I had totally underestimated what I should be doing with the class. It was a good presentation with some questions to grill the students and I was not too sure that my work would go over so well. The presentation was going on a long time too, and I wondered as I watched the big school clock which hung over the doorway, exactly how much time I really had before some bell would ring and students would want to change subject lessons. Unfortunately, do to the gremlins that seem to always get into the technology, a video of a church outing did not work, so that seemed to put a spin on the mood of the class as they wanted to see, but could only hear what was going on. That’s when my turn to present happened, and low and behold, the computer still worked for my presentation.
After a brief introduction, and having my daughter stand up beside me to help with any translation that might be useful, students arms were quickly in the air to ask questions. I was stuck with what to do. On the one hand if I let them talk now I may, because of nerves, loose my train of thought. Yet, on the other hand, if the kids talk now it could be like what sometimes happens at church and an overly excited child gives an excellent second sermon about how God has been in their life, which would have the effect in this scenario of using up a lot of my time; which would mean, less speaking by me and more speaking by the kids. In the end I quickly decided to hold off on the questions for the moment until I could at least get to the second ‘slide’.
The old Kodak slide carousel had its day, and could bore people to death over family trips and other adventures. Now with electronic powerpoint presentations we can go on for infinitem with gigabytes of stored photos seeing possibly several hundred slides at a time. So, I won’t bore you with the details of all seven of my slides, but I can say that I opted to have only pictures. A picture speaks a thousand words anyway, plus no one could report me for poor German grammar.
Having briefly taught children at Christ Church Cathedral School in Victoria whilst being the Assistant Curate, I am a big believer in the pedagogical style of thinking like a child so that they learn what I want them to learn. Images, stories and objects all help to make links from what may be called theoretical to the practical. I may have an idea of the Anglican Church, but it just floats around as an idea until you tie it to something that a child can comprehend and then you link the idea or theory, with the practical and experienced.
Well, the photos flashed up on screen and we talked a little about each. More and more hands were shooting into the air so I started to field questions and even got to learn some of the students names in the process. I felt like some kind of relationship was growing and that I could really pull this off. For me, the important picture was a photo of a Mohnschnecke a sweet desert like a cinnamon bun but with sugar and poppy seed.
It is often a familiar lunch item, or treat for kids so they all have an experience. The students all agreed with me that the best part of the pastry is the very centre. So, the Anglican Church with all its long and winding history, its debates and traditions, the best part of it, the central thing, is that we are called to love God, and neighbour, just as God loves us. There were lots of nodding heads.
My presentation wrapped up with an activity in which each student (and the two other adult’s) in the room had to find a partner. I know that the kids play a game in the school ground called, Michael Jackson, where you quickly clap hands together, do silly dances, and swivel your hips like you are playing with a hoola-hoop and then as you pronounce each syllable of ‘Mich-ael-Jack-son’ you swivel your feet outwards making your legs spread further and further apart with each round of the game. The game continues until one, or both people topple over because they cannot spread their legs any further (unless they can do the splits!). In using this fore-knowledge of a fun and silly game, I had all involved use different words, and similar actions to remember that the Anglican Church has ‘Orders’ (Archbishop’s, bishops, priests, deacons), that prayer is very central to our lives, and that reading the Bible is important. The classroom erupted into fits of laughter as the students tried to imitate my daughter and I as we slowly approached the point of tipping over.
In the end, there was a small presentation from the teacher, a round of applause from the students and a small token of thanks which is meant to be a small oasis in the hot days of summer. I tiny message in a bottle to take with me as I left the classroom and would enjoy a more leisurely bike ride to my next appointment.
I think it needs to be made clear that the views and opinions expressed on my blog are my own views and not that of the congregation I serve, neither the wider Church in which I minister.
I feel the need to write this explanation now my readership grows and people within my own community wonder if the blog is a barometer of my own thoughts and feelings for them. There are no ‘hidden messages’ but if one wishes to read the postings as one might a horoscope than I’m sure there will be some truth found. The blog is neither a barometer nor is it a place to vent about what may, or may not be happening at the time. That would be out of place.
I write a lot. I read a lot. I reflect a lot. There are different blogs and paper journals for a whole variety of notes and thoughts. This blog happens to be about a guy who happens to be a priest and happens to live in Germany. Other blogs are about a guy who enjoys poetry, or a guy who likes short-stories.
So let’s finish with all of that and get on with things.
I have for, many years, practiced Centering Prayer. The key word is practiced.
It is a private thing which sometimes gives life and sometimes feels like just sitting around. I’m not an expert, nor do I feel any good at it. I won’t try and discribe it but link resources here for those interested.
Prayer is both public and private.
Years ago I underwent a mandatory ministry review. It was standardised and I see the importance of doing such reviews periodically in ones life. In my first formal review, one of the reviewers was a man who clearly had not read the instructions on the form. Or maybe he did read them and he made a point in sending me the final copy of his paperwork as well as sending it to my immediate superior and my bishop. The whole form was filled out in detail, even the parts that were left for me to contribute and my reviewer to take notes about my written material and my interview. What upset me the most from this blooper was that it gave someone who was very upset with me (I wanted as nonbiased a report as possible) because I didn’t come to a party to which I never knew I was invited. At the time it felt like someone had taken this opportunity for development and manipulated it into chance to take some revenge.
The portion of the form that I was to fill out about my own personal prayer life and prayer practice was completed by the reviewer. Apparently, and in the impressions of the reviewer, in the secret of my heart and home the opinion was that I was the worst person of prayer, that I was unable to connect with God, and that all I did was sit around staring at the tops of my knees.
It hurt. It hurt that someone would think that of me. It also hurt because it can be true. The mainline connection to God does have poor reception at times. I say this openly not that I feel this way at all now, but that it does happen. We shame people into thinking they must always be super Christians with a nice personal chat with God at the offer like having the red phone on the desk of some head of state.
At the moment, I am feeling really chuffed about my prayer life and my ongoing relationship with God. If one can admit to such a thing. I become a squirrel to stash these thoughts away for the winter so I’ve got something to live off of for those barren times which do and will come.
I have come to expect that God comes and goes – well in truth that better describes me – like a thief in the night and a bridegroom early to the party. One practice that sustains me in the highs and lows is centering prayer. And today, praying in the church of St Martin the impact was powerful. Outside the church doors there is the Freiburg Christmas Market that has started and with it: the people, the noise, the joyous chaos and the anxious signs warning of pick-pockets. All these things blend away behind the silent heavy doors of the church as they close. The innerior of the church this time of year has the old wooden doors of the altar opened up to show a biblical story carved out of wood. The contrasts are palatable.
To sit for 20 minutes in silence in that space makes praying come easier. At every level of experience it is like God takes the rough wood as well as the gold foil that represents the person I am, and in such, God is able to create moments of surprise and delight. To fashion these things and to rest and know that all shall be well. To reflect on the present and the past and see that God guilds all things, like slithers of gold, as the John Bell song says.
Where does walking get you in Freiburg? Actually, you can go quite a distance if you are determined, or you can go in circles and dig deeper and deeper like a spiritual wandering.
As I travel mostly by train I get to meet such a wide variety of God’s people. If I was to simply watch over the Anglican flock in Freiburg it would mean visiting people as far away as Basel, and as close as ‘just around the corner’. I walk through the streets on my way to visit people and I often wave to familiar faces on the Straßenbahn, or stop to greet someone who has just come out of a shop.
There is a great many people with very interesting lives, some of which I have the pleasure of meeting, and others I just scratch the surface of knowing. Today I was struck by my desire for ‘thick skin’. Emotionally, thick skin where problems, conflicts, even the daily bumps and bruises seem a bit more tolerable when one has thick skin. At least that has been my ideal, or my perception. Just today, a couple of people opened up to me the idea of seeing vulnerability as something of a gift. One of these people was a young woman who describes the stigma of being ‘sensitive’ and the case for being a sensitive person. Four Thought, Sensitive Souls
On the Straßenbahn ride into the city centre today I sat opposite a young man who by all appearances had thick skin. He just seemed to be wearing a chip on his shoulder. On a very full streetcar, nobody seemed prepared to sit across from this young guy…so I did. His hands, or rather his knuckles, were heavily tattooed with words that intrigued me, they said, “LIVE” and “HOPE”. I guess I was staring, (it is hard not to when you sit toe to toe) and he seemed like he was needing to test to see how long I would sit near him. He opened his bag and a thick fragrance of marijuana started to fill the air. People started to stare, and more backed away as the guy began to grind up large chucks of pot. “Nicht besorgt?”, said the young guy. What I took to mean, ‘Not concerned?’.
It is a truly interesting feeling to walk through a town and know the places, to see familiar faces, and also to look beyond the ‘chip on the shoulder’ to see that someone seems to want to express so much across their knuckles, and yet devise ways to guard their heart. Maybe that is what I do too, with a blog that acts as words across my knuckles, I’m just glad for the chance to walk the city with those who feel vulnerable.
At the end of the day, walking and talking, it is possible to cover a large area of Freiburg. It is not a pilgrimage getting from A to B, but much a kin to digging deeper and deeper in a labyrinth where after much plodding, we find ourselves at the centre with God. Who, I think might also have the words LIVE and HOPE tattooed across knuckles.
When I was as old as my youngest daughter is now I had limits set that allowed me to journey far and wide unsupervised.
When I was a couple years younger than what my oldest daughter is now, I had a wide circle of city blocks in which I was permitted to journey unsupervised. The boundaries were marked by various landmarks more than streets. I could go as far as the Black Cat which was a small shop on a seaside road, basically where the sidewalk ended and the road became too narrow and too twisted to safely walk or travel on by bicycle. The other landmark was what I would consider the next village where there was a couple of blocks of park separating the next shopping street. The north and south were marked by natural boundaries like the forest up the mountain, and the ocean to the south. A vast expanse for a young child, but in reality it was not especially far. However, it does push the limits of what most modern day ‘helicopter’ parents would allow.
For less then 10 Euros I just put my eldest daughter on the bus to Stuttgart to be met by her grandparents. On a weekly basis the same daughter travels from school on various trains and street cars. She is smart, and can, we believe, handle herself in different situations. It still feels a bit like she has by bus, gone far beyond where I traveled alone at her age. Then again, I doubt my own parents knew what I was up to between my day long trips out with friends.
Maybe my parents will be surprised about what I write, but I can remember one early October day when my best friend and I took a bus to downtown Vancouver into the heart of Chinatown. Together we boldly walked into a store selling all sorts of things from housewares to what looked like dried chicken feet in glass bottles in the display window. We asked for firecrackers which were illegal and we were, after some sideways glances of the shop owner, led to a back room behind a beaded curtain where there were piles and piles of firecrackers wrapped in red waxy paper into what looked like bricks. We bought all we could afford and invested in one special firecracker listed as a 1/4 stick of dynamite. (I very much doubt it was a what it said it was, but at least the blast was extraordinary.) On the return trip I seem to recall an idea that we would disembark in Stanley Park and then walk over the Lions Gate Bridge so that we could spit down into the sea water far below.
It seems strange to think about these things now that I am a parent and my daughter sends me WhatsApp messages from the bus to Stuttgart. While it is good to have limits and boundaries, it certainly an interesting social experiment when in Freiburg there has been in the University quarter of town, a lengthy construction project. The site is now an open public space, but there were delays due to the unearthing of the Old Synagogue. Now that the area has finally opened and the water fountains have turned on, it is like all of Freiburg has now entered the space that was once blocked by wire fencing and heavy machinery. A tidal wave of people has flooded into the space.
Nearby to this new public area is a newly renovated café called the Schwarze Katze in which I met some people from around the city. Given the name ‘The Black Cat Café’ I just had to go and reflect on what was a much smaller and far more distant Black Cate Café of my childhood. While I was sitting alone in the café I realized I was coming close to reaching my own limits, not in geography, but in a personality that was seated nearby. A young blonde male student perched cheerfully on the end of a beer bench, and started to chat away to some of the young women that joined the table. All this would be fine and normal, but for the hat that was on his head – a bright red ‘Make America Great Again’ hat from a Donald Trump rally. As the conversations at the table became louder, the rhetoric became more apparent. People began to turn and stare, one passerby seemed so shocked he distractedly fell into the small water channel that borders most of the streets in Freiburg. The young guy had enough sense to figure that people were not pleased with his attire, nor his words, and he turned the ball cap around on his head. We had all reached our limit.
Last week in the midst of some warm and humid weather I decided to ride my bicycle into Freiburg to join one of the monthly church groups – the Wise Ones. While the group is a fellowship group for those who are retired, they let me join partly because I’m the minister, and partly, I think, because I have some grey hair, and as the Celtic tradition says, a head of grey hair is a sign of wisdom.
As I started out my journey I tried out one of the features of my GPS that will calculate various routes, be it by bike, by foot, or by car. Having figured that I’d seen a few different routes to the church already, I programmed the GPS to take me on a hilly route. This is where I think I gained a few more grey hairs, but proved not to be very wise.
After the first 2 kilometres it became evident to me that I was going to get my heart racing. The suggested road to take turned out to be an over-grown edge of a field that the farm tractor may have seen a few weeks ago. Nonetheless, I persevered in ignorance.
Next came a short, but steep, jaunt through the vineyards. The grapes are coming into season, the air was warm, the clouds were darkening and I could hear thunder in the distance. Of all the days to have a thunderstorm! The idyllic scenery could not conquer the steady pounding in my ears of my own racing heartbeat as I was set to ignore every possible switchback and continued on my course straight up the hill. I became mildly concerned to find the hair on my arms standing upright with ever-blackening clouds and ever-nearing sounds of thunder.
With about 200 metres until I reached the canopy of the Black Forest the heavens opened and the rain poured. Receiving shelter from the tall trees only made me feel protected from the violent crashing of the thunderstorm, yet the rain drops fell more heavily as they gathered their forces together off of the tall leafed trees and plunged down.
The dirt path quickly became a small stream and mud splashed up from my wheels to ensure that whatever dry part of my clothes was left would be properly soaked. Wisdom tells you to bring an extra change of clothes (which I did, thinking I would be too sweaty), wisdom might also tell you to put your clothes in a dry bag (which I didn’t) and still when I arrived at the church I was allowed to participate in the Wise Ones meeting. The rain actually fell from the trees so hard that it took me a moment to realize that my route had been changed. The water drops falling in rapid and heavy succession upon my touch screen GPS had canceled my current route and changed it to something altogether more impossible.
As I stood in the rain pretending to find shelter under the trees and hunching my back over my electronic navigation system so that I might find my correct course, or better yet, my actual location it occurred to me that I had not seen anyone on my ride. Usually I would have encountered dozens of people out for a bike ride, or a hike. Either everyone knew that there would be a thunderstorm, or I was so far into the woods that there was definitely no restaurant, or Gasthaus nearby – this by German standards is completely lost. Your mind begins to play tricks on you as you become more chilled from the rain and you feel disoriented. Had I been somewhere in Canada I would have felt as if I was on a logging road and been concerned that a bear might come out of the woods. All the German fairytales started to come to mind, but not in the Disney versions, rather the original German versions which are far more gruesome.
Onwards and still upwards! After the momentary lapse in confusion, I mounted my bike and began to plod my way steadily uphill. I began to use my better judgement for a change and started reading the signs and ignoring my GPS so that I eventually made my way down the other side of the hill towards my destination. It was only then that finally the heavens opened and the blue sky and bright sun showed up, a little too weakly to actually dry anything off, but it was good for the mood.
Bike riding is full of adventure, but later I learned from my parents that sometimes the adventure comes to you…even in your own home. We might be half a world away, but we find ways of communicating our stories and adventures. Having a running commentary this morning by text message about the large Black Bear that has found its way into the house and made itself very much at home in the kitchen with several hamburger buns, and a jar of peanut butter would certainly surprise anyone, even the family dog. Eventually the determined bear was scared off, but surely the story will live on and grow into a family memory, a legendary tale.
I think I will stick to my rainy bike ride up the side of the mountain then come face to face with a large Black Bear and her jar of peanut butter. At the end of the story I think we are all, a little greyer, and I hope, a little wiser.
Gazing in one direction the prominent hills of the Black-forest take up a commanding scene, but if I cast my eyes westward, toward France, the Kaisersthul is the one clear hill on the horizon before the Rhine. The Kaisersthul, or ‘Emperors chair’, is a little over 500 metres at the summit and is an old volcano. It is known worldwide for the wines that come from its terraced slopes, and for some interesting flora and fauna.
In what is a micro-climate of Mediterranean temperatures it is possible to find sand lizards, praying mantis, and breeding colonies of the European Bee Eater. Having journeyed with a friend from church I was surprised that we were able to spot the Bee Eaters so quickly. Driving up a narrow road with the only traffic being narrow bodied farm tractors that are built to pass between the row upon row of grape vines, and the occasional cyclist, we stopped the car and sat on a wooden bench and within moments graceful birds glided above and below our vantage point.
It was the warmest day of the year, with the temperature hovering around 30 C and the air heavily scented with the perfume of flowering trees. All very exciting stuff for those who like to birdwatch. Meanwhile in Scotland, one of my favourite birds species from Canada, the Red-winged Blackbird, was grabbing the attention of those on the hunt for rare birds. After my own outing, I heard reports of birdwatcher flocking to a remote part of Scotland to see the first time visitor of a female Red-winged Blackbird.
I was glad that my trip was not so frantic, a lot warmer, and spent in good company. To end the birdwatching trip and toast my first sighting of a Bee Eater at the Kaiserstuhl – like most outdoor hikes in Germany – we were able to find a nice local restaurant where we could put down the binoculars and lift another set of glasses to end our day.