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.
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.
With the conclusion of the churches hosting of the German Synod, and later the congregations own annual general meeting my wife and I went to the Vita Classica. The town of Bad Krozingen has the designation ‘Bad’ meaning bath and one of these baths is the thermal bath/spa of the Vita Classica. A whole range of spa treatments are available, but we went for a swim in the several different pools.
The pools are warm, but not as hot as I was expecting from my experience of a Canadian outdoor natural hot spring. However, what was nice was the ‘gong’ system. The Gong works like this: each part of some of the pools has bubbles blasting away, and you get a nice massage as you go from one part of the pool to the next. There is always a movement of people around the edge of the pool as a gong sounds signalling to those in the water that it is time to move to the next station. If you have ever done a circuit training workout at a gym, going from different weightlifting machinery and cardio equipment, then you have some idea of what goes on in the pool. Moving slowly from one blast of warm water to the next leaves you feeling like you have done a workout without really going anywhere.
Another interesting pool was the music room. A large indoor pool with clusters of people floating about on their backs with the help of the Styrofoam ‘pool noodle’. The water is almost at body temperature and nobody really talks beyond that of a whisper. What is really great is once you relax and begin to float, and as your ears go under the water; you are serenaded by classical music which can only be heard underwater.
One more feature that I enjoyed about the pools were the changing lights. My wife and I had hoped that the night sky would be full of bright stars to gaze at while we floated on our backs in the hot water, but the cloudy sky blocked out that hope. The runner-up to the stars was the changing lights in the pools, or of the whole rooms if we were inside. Deep blue lights signified the temperature of the pool was cool, or that the lights cycled around the pool like a visual gong, reminding swimmers to move on to the next active pool.
The basic pools were plenty to leave my wife and I more rested and relaxed.
The other day as I got of the train nearby our home, hands in my pockets, I rounded the corner and walked right into a standoff.
Two boys, around 7 years old, approached with bandana’s covering their mouths, and hands at their sides. They were too fast for me, and drew their guns out of their holsters, and blasted me. The smell of gunpowder was on the air as the midday sun shone down on all of us.
I had no chance. The children during the Fasnet celebrations had got me. The boys laughed and laughed, as their cap guns clacked away. No horses to ride off on, but I was left alone and I soon heard in the distance the next unsuspecting victim being shot to smithereens.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a child’s toy cap gun in a store, but they flood the shelves at the department stores and village toy shops. Costumes for young and old are for sale, and so begins the regional celebrations. While Shrove Tuesday is a few days away still, the spirit of Mardi Gras is alive and well in some shape and form here in Freiburg. Children take over their schools, groups of children raid the village and city halls. The Roman Catholic priest wasn’t able to attend a recent meeting as he was detained by the children in his congregation as fun and havoc rules for a short time every year.
Each village has a particular style of clothing, and costume. Some are expensive carved wooden masks depicting witches, or furred animals. The suits are old pieces of stitched on cloth, pottery shards, or tiles. The partying can shut down offices, trains and trams as parades, and mockery take hold. The spirit of carnival lasts for about a week, and then there is another celebration in Basel, Switzerland with its own customs and traditions. And then there is the Alemannisch Fastnacht which offers another set of customs. Some photos of the costumes can be found at the Black Forest Tourism Office.
I couldn’t possibly go into details about the richness of the various traditions, as many of the villages, groups and people have their own stories to tell. It is however, an exciting time, full of fun, tradition and celebration. There’s always a surprise waiting around the corner.
A very thick fog has settled in our area. I’m not used to so much fog, and neither is the dog. Early morning walks and especially the late evening walks through the farmer fields make the dog a little anxious. Now that it has rained throughout the night the fog has cleared, but I am sure it will return soon. I appreciate the fog when the temperature drops and it appears that the fog is freezing and falling from sky, or it attaches itself to skeletal shapes of leafless trees and bushes. Even ones own breath blows out and looks to freeze and drop to the ground to join the swirl of fog.
The light from street lamps are fuzzy blurs at worst, and at best the light beams highlight the swirls of fog that blow around like a Canadian snowdrift. In just a dozen or so steps into one of the many surrounding farm fields you can easily loose all sense of direction as any directional lights start to disappear with every step away from buildings and roads. While your vision subsides the noises seem to grow more intense.
The other night as I walked with the dog through this soupy fog we were both suddenly shocked to see a huge farm tractor appear beside us in one of the fields with a large plow lowered to turn over the soil. With only lights on in the front of the tractor we felt the effects of the rumbling machine before we had the chance to see it clearly.
Truly the farmer never seems to take a break. A field recently harvested is quickly turned over and reseeded with the next crop. Over the year it seems that the cycle goes something like this: grain, maize, feldsalat (a tiny little lettuce that is harvested by many workers on their hands and knees). Then there is some kind of root, or tuber vegetable that is simply mixed into the soil as a natural fertilizer. There are other food crops and non-food crops, but the same thing applies…they are always doing something in the fields.
Most of the local farmers are people with ‘regular’ jobs on top of their family farm so that when work is done in a 9 to 5 job, the evenings are spent either sowing, or harvesting.
One of the only fields around our house that is still sitting (as far as I can tell) fallow with a fertilizer crop waiting to be plowed into the ground is home to a pair of Ring Neck Pheasants. The dog usually keeps off the fields as there are plenty of field mice to catch on the edges and borders of the fields, yet the other day in the misty evening fog the dog ran back along the dirt road looking like someone who has realized they’ve just missed an item in the last aisle they passed in the grocery store. A new sound, or smell has directed him to the edge of the field and on instinct he plunges into the frost covered greenery and bounds like a dolphin would at sea. Then, Whoosh! a pheasant hen takes to the air and skims the plants with a zigzag flight only to disappear into the fog at the other end of the field. With determination the dog keeps looking and soon a large male pheasant complete with a beautiful long tail shoots out of the plants a few metres away from where I am standing on the roadside. Along with the zigzag flight he adds his own scolding clucking as he too disappears the same way his mate did a few seconds earlier.
Winter fog has obscured my vision, but it has also helped to make some things clear. The farmer never stops, and nature will always surprise.
People often tell me that they enjoy the light of Freiburg. That there is a unique quality to the light that is distinctive to the place. Usually I just see light without the uniqueness that others enjoy. Perhaps I am simple.
I now run around 5 kilometres three to four times a week as part of my wellbeing. It was the other day, perhaps from a ‘runners high’ that I noticed the light. My running routes purposely take me away from the busy roads and I find myself running through fields and vineyards. The weather is getting cooler and I usually am the only person walking, or running outside. In the evenings the gym near the train station is aglow with neon lights and the bobbing silhouette of men and women jogging on treadmills. Even when it is raining the grey clouds don’t always seal up the sun. Particularly in the evenings towards sun-set the light is wonderful and majestic for a few moments. There are times on my runs when I want to stop and dig out my phone so that I can snap a quick photo, but the light is so perfect for just a short time that the moment has passed before I can untangle my headphones and retrieve my phone. The photos never do any justice to the overall view.
Now the sun provides such a contrast to the grey clouds, the flocks of birds that scavenge the spilt corn, and the multi coloured vines that make the hills into a patchwork quilt of colour.
Is it from the time spent being in one place that I can now see the light in the way that others have tried to express? Or is it the pumping heart, the working legs and the distance that is more than just kilometres that has worked to open my eyes to the etherial light of Freiburg?
Typically this view shows tourists, people enjoying a coffee, and wedding parties. The Rathaus is the place to see couples marry as they sign the necessary paperwork at the City Hall and then have small gatherings in the square to celebrate. On a busy day you can see dozens of couples coming and going for their appointed meeting times.
While not the greatest of photographs with a phone camera I wanted to frame the shot that is the image of many couples when they leave the building. The ironwork gate, the patterned cobblestones, and the birds both of iron and feather fill the scene.
Framing the scene is often a photographic technique to focus the eye and can create some interesting images. When I sit down to do a puzzle it is often easiest for me to search through the box for the flat-edged pieces so that I may build the frame that will contain the picture, or the finished puzzle. What are those flat edged pieces in our own lives, in our marriages, and in our Church? I think that in discovering the boundaries of our relationships we often set a ‘frame of reference’ that helps us to make sense, gather meaning and become purposeful.
It has been ten months time since moving to Germany with my family to begin ministry with an Anglican Church. These ten months have been a time spent in setting the frame. Getting to know people. Searching out the flat bits from the puzzle box. The community of the church represents a picture and there are many personalities that piece together. Occasionally I find that one piece can link to several others if I’m not too careful and in doing so the puzzle doesn’t get done, or the picture is distorted. The hard work of building the picture is set to begin. Some of the Sisters of St. John the Divine in Toronto and British Columbia, Canada have an interest in a particular type of puzzle that seems challenging. The puzzle is called a ‘Wasgij’, or Jigsaw written backwards. The image on the box top is not the image that you need to piece together. Rather, it is an image that when you look at it, you must imagine what it is the people in the picture are looking at, and it is that ‘imagined’ picture that is what one sets on building. To use this example in the life of the Church now that some time has been spent on referencing the framework is both challenging and exciting. We listen and pray about what God’s purpose is, but we have no solid blueprint, or box top design to follow. In this way, each community and its parts have an aim, or a goal which we are trying to piece together. What is the image of our church community that we are helping to bring about?
Alas, the picture will have many people, activities, events and occasions that I will perhaps get a glimpse of as I work away on things. However, puzzles are best left done together as a family event. The picture grows in an organic way as community members add to a section, or focus on a particular area.
The final product (that of building and of enjoying the picture) is also something less like a photograph, or puzzle picture and more akin to a painting. A work of Art.