The Unofficial Official (or, don’t cross on a red light)

Last week I returned, once again, to the local authorities for an extension on my visa which allows me to live and work in Germany.  The Landratsamt – Breisgau — Hochschwarzwald is like many other government buildings, functional and institutional.  There is a lot of concrete, and only one flight of stairs down has the feel of being subterranean.

I have spent a great deal of effort photocopying my forms and checking off lists of documents that are full of official stamps.  A hefty file folder sits in my bag and summarizes my basic existence in Germany.  As I stand at a cross walk waiting for the lights to change my thoughts begin to wander.  A few men are standing behind me, and a few other people standing at the street corner.  The men are loudly speaking a language that I do not recognize.  They seem to be having a conversation well known to them which is punctuated with what I considered to be sarcastic laughter, but they seem to be in good spirits.  I realize that in my own nervousness in going to visit the government building and its power-welding employees that I am probably feeling a bit threatened for no good reason.  A bunch of traffic drives past and there is a pause of absolutely no street traffic.  There are no cars, nor bikes of any kind.  I, and the several people gathered on either side of the cross walk stand and wait for the ‘green man’ walking light.  The three men behind, push and bump there way through the little crowd standing at the corner and walk across the street.  I find myself shaking my head along with the others, and seeing what looks like one parent across the road standing with a hand on the shoulder of a child, shooting daggers at the men as they amble across the quiet intersection with the blazing ‘red man’ crossing signal burning a hole in the grey air.

I find myself irritated that the three men have now successfully crossed the road, but now stop on the opposite corner as the crosswalk light turns green for pedestrians, so that they can turn and stare – no, stop and ogle – a young woman crossing the street.  The scene prompts whispered remarks and shaking of heads again from the other people gathered.

By this time, I think that I really don’t need the negative thoughts racing through my head prior to my visit to the visa office so I hurriedly walk past and ahead of the three young men still laughing and still rubbernecking the women crossing the road.

It isn’t a long before I turn the corner and see the building looming on the next city block and I begin to think to myself, “Do I have that form? Did I take that document?”.  Like checking for watch, wallet, glasses…I am padding myself down and opening my bag to check for the umpteenth time my list of items which I might need.  I feel a fool.  Now the three men are past me again and seem to be going to the same building.  This would not be unusual.

As it turns out, they are heading to the same building, and the same department.  And this is where I start to think to myself about my hidden anger.  Despite being 30 minutes early for opening time, there is already a line up of about 50 people, just for the ticket dispenser.  There are some changes since the last time I visited, notably, there are two security guards giving people, in a friendly way, instructions on how to line up, and how to speed up the process by having your Personalausweiß (ID like my Passport) handy, as your name and place in the line up will be required by the woman entering the information into the ticket machine.  Having an employee at the ticket dispenser is also a new feature, and it certainly seemed to speed things up.

This process did not seem to impress the three young men who now stood in front of me in the snaking line. For one, they did not seem to understand the instructions, despite the repeated attempts to clarify by one security guard.  Once the instructions seemed to be understood there seemed to be a lot of disbelief on a couple of accounts.  One was, that only one of the three had business to conduct in the office, the other two were just buddies or relatives along for the journey.  Only the one conducting business needed to be in line.  This seemed hard to understand that not all three needed a ticket.  The other complication was that the fellow which needed a ticket, had no personal ID in order to get a ticket.  He argued that he would use his friends ID instead.  This was also met with more clarity around the rules offered by the still smiling security guard.  To my dismay the one fellow left the line up and walked up to the front of the line and after some waving of arms and shouting back and forth this his two friends, or family members, tried to explain to the guard that he doesn’t need to wait in the line up, and that they don’t need a woman to help them at the end of the line.

This ended up to be the end of the line for the three men who were politely told by the still smiling security guard that there is a procedure and rules that need to be followed.  The three men left for home to get the necessary documentation, and I hope, a bit more humility.

These events are relatively uncommon, but they are part of the ‘gut-reactions’ that often lead to miscommunication and prejudice.  I know that I was dismayed at the behaviours around the treatment of women while crossing the road.  What I am left with after the relatively brief encounter is the professionalism of the staff, especially the smiling security guard.  Crossing on a red light is a cultural ‘no-no’ in Germany, and even Germans will have a laugh about this at times.  My own personal cultural taboo was crossed with what looked like the disrespect and objectification of women, especially women in some role of authority like a the ticket giver.

After not too long a time, I found myself at the front of the line and greeted the woman asking for my ID so she could see my name.  After saying good day, the woman looked up with stunned shock that I had spoken to her.  She even said this aloud and was glad to return a final greeting as I departed to look for a hard plastic seat for my long wait.

The procedure past the ticket dispenser is a long wait sitting in an uncomfortable chair glancing up at a tv screen waiting for the opening time to start and the various ticket numbers to start flashing next to room numbers.  There are all sorts of different tactics and behaviours for this wait.  Some people, like a man sitting next to me in a chair, rocks gently back and forth with breathing that sounds like he’s in a pre-natal class preparing to give birth.  Then there are those who ‘camp out’ with computers watching foreign shows and movies, spreading a small banquet over one of the few tables.  Then there are those, who are the opportunistic type that go from door to door in this circular hallway knocking quickly and then going in to the small office.  One such fellow did exactly this to the office door which was nearest where I sat.  A slightly tired and irritated voice of a woman came through the shut door explaining that, “No, you cannot just come in and jump the cue, there is a process.  No, I cannot help you with these papers. No, you will need to wait outside please.”  Then, out comes the man, and off he goes to the next door.

It was not as long a wait as I had thought until my ticket Letter and Number ‘pinged’ on the many screens.  I jumped up with my belongings and ran for the door like I’d won some jackpot.  A quick knock on the door before entering and an official looking across the desk asked for proof of my number so I gave over my ticket.  I was asked, “What do you want?” and I blurted out a very long German word which basically means a-permission-to-sit in the country.  My file was pulled up on the screen of her computer and a trainee perched next to the official reviewed my status.

I was asked, “Did you get a letter from the state to apply? Or are you doing this on your?”

I meekly said, “I am doing this on my own,” thinking that this is where the rejection starts.

The Official replied, “do you have form X?”

“Yes,” I said. And I handed over the form.

(Then in the tone of her voice it seemed we were playing card games like ‘go-fish’) “Well, do you have copies of Y?”

Yes!

This went on a few more times as I handed over documents and letters and stamped copies of translations.  I brought out of my bag the entire file folder with orange label tabs as a statement that I was well prepared.

“Herr Parsons, please wait in the hallway until you see your number again. We will deliberate your case.”

In twenty minutes a few other officials came and went from the office as I tried to imagine their thoughts from the expressions on their faces.

Eventually my number came up again, to the astonishment of the crowd around me, and I returned to the office.  In the end, I got another appointment not during business hours and with ‘no ticket’ required to bring a photo along with my passport.  I was then presented with a small document giving permission to stay in the country for a few more months, a “fiction”, or an unofficial official document until my personal card arrives for pick up.

I can stay in the country, thankfully, and the extra document helps cover the gap of an old visa until the new Personalausweiß arrives.

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In the Dog House?

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.  IMG_20180530_171030#1

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.

Contemplative Prayer

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.
How true.
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.

Wander

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.

 

Light

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?

 

Open-Minded & Open-Bags

It is strange what you find when you aren’t looking for something.  One occasion was spotting a small handbag under a shopping cart which held 400Euro’s in cash.  There was no identification.  A single shopping cart was left near the bike parking at a local grocery store and underneath the cart on the ground was a palm-sized handbag.

Maybe it is from reading, and watching Sherlock Holmes that one starts to piece together the owner in ones mind.  The thought was that it was an elderly woman that had most of her entire weeks worth of money in one bag.  It turns out we were right, as the son called us to thank us, and wanted to know if we would like a reward.  Knowing that the item had been returned was reward enough.

There are times when distraction makes us forget the things that are essential. I know one reader will recognize that it is easy to leave, bags, books, wallets, and keys when a crisis strikes.  I do it all the time.

The other find was not actually much of my doing, as I walked the dog in the early morning before it gets really hot.  Wandering our way through the corn fields the dog has a pastime of jumping into the long grass at the side of the dirt roads.  He jumps around as if he were on springs; all in the hopes to catch a field mouse.  (He’s already encountered a Hedgehog and found them a bit prickly).  It was in one of these hunts that the dog strayed into the corn and was intent on sniffing something.  By the time I caught on that this was not a mouse I found a green shoulder bag.  There was a train stop, and paved road nearby, but again the deductive reasoning kicked in and started me thinking how a bag that is the same colour as the corn stalks got here.

This time around there was no money, but lots of ID cards, bankcards, and a very new looking iPhone that was dead.  The police have yet to find the owner, so I wonder,  “what will the owner think?”, or “What they are like?”  What happened to make the bag fall so far into the corn field? Who is this person, besides a young black man who has a student ticket for the train?

Everyday we meet people, but rarely do we ever see inside their purses, wallets, or bags.  Everyday we meet people and yet do we really get to open up and truly meet them.  Part of the mystery in finding the lost articles makes me wonder about keeping an open mind about who the people are behind the possessions.  In the same way we could think of the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by a cover”.

The church, when it works well, provides a place where people can open up as they find it a safe place…a sanctuary.  Open-mindedness is a practice when we meet people.  Naturally we find ways to place, judge, and identify people. However, some of this is surface material and only when we are lost and vulnerable do we find that we are spread open.  We see the fragility of an elderly woman with a wad of 50Euro bills.  We see the important items, the treasures, in bank cards, and student ID.  There are always surprises when we become vulnerable.

Some people shock us in their behaviours, their attitudes and their appearance.  Yet I know that when we look a little deeper, as uncomfortable as that may sound, we often find a lot of the same issues.  Loneliness, hurt, pain; as well as, joy, ambition, and longing.

Jesus meets his friends on the road as they are confused and filled with the anxiety of crisis.  In the venerable moment of sharing a meal with ‘a stranger’ they find the risen Lord.  “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” Luke 24. 45

Time trials

I am making all sorts of discoveries, and will likely disappoint German readers with my findings of all things German; however, for my Canadian friends it should give some insight.

The house has mechanical blinds (which I have tried to spell by my English autocorrect does not like German words) and it makes the house very quiet as well as very dark.  I woke up very late as I had no sunlight to prompt me, but I do feel very refreshed.  The dog and I went for a long walk into Freiburg as I was curious about how long it will take if I decide to walk there.  The way there was a good example of wandering in the wilderness – I am sure that if Moses had asked for directions to the promised land it wouldn’t have taken 40 years.  Equally, if I had bothered to consult my map I would have been much faster at getting to the Munster (Cathedral), but the exploration was fun.

I managed to take a few photos of the obvious sights that tourists typically show, but I wanted to point out that I will be participating in an Ecumenical church service at the Munster as the city residents remember the bombing of Freiburg.wp-1448541700928.jpeg  One of the gates to the ‘old’ part of the city is St Martin’s Tor, and I have discovered that it is sometimes referred to by locals as McMartin’s because of the McDonalds that is at the base of the tower (there’s a Starbucks on the other side too).  IMG_20151126_120813_hdr

The Christmas Market is up and running now, but it much more popular at night.  The streets are decorated with lights, ribbons, stars and swags of evergreen branches.  It feels cool in the air with some snow showing on the hilltops.

 

The Munster certainly towers over the city, and was for the most part, the beacon which I used to orient myself in the city.  I discovered that like new people to the world of hiking in the mountains on the West Coast of Canada that have been told the helpful advice that ‘moss grows on the south side of the tree’ soon discover that in the damp and wet that moss grows on every side of the tree.  The same is true for Freiburg, as I wandered down streets only to discover yet another church spire.  I probably have managed to do a small pilgrimage to all the local parishes on my first venture into Freiburg.  In the end, I took the more direct way back by following the map and managed to return in under an hour.