Connections and connections

by the Night Writer

It’s a rainy day, and unexpectedly cold for August. I’m reading an elegy by Patti Smith for her friend, Sam Shepard, and thinking about lines of acquaintance and connection.

Shepard lived for a time in Stillwater, MN; a friend of mine talked to him once in a store about Sorel boots. I saw Smith in concert one time, under duress, when another friend pleaded with me to drive him the 3 hours to Kansas City, and back again, for the show in exchange for a free ticket and the unfulfilled promise to help with the driving on the return trip because I was already operating on almost zero sleep. Miraculously, we survived, as young people so often do.

Shepard died last week of ALS; a disease with which I am also acquainted. Coincidentally, I learned yesterday that my life insurance company believes I still have ALS, turning down my nine-month-old request for supplemental coverage. In the resulting flurry of emails and phone calls between me, them and the Mayo, this article was sent to my attention by another friend.

And I am reminded again of how good it is to pay attention to your friends.

Smith-My-Buddy

Ghosts

by the Night Writer

We looked at a potential rental property last night that had just been listed. A realtor’s note said the seller hadn’t lived in the house since 1965 – a surviving generation’s duty now being discharged.

There were still a lot of belongings in the home, but in boxes, stacked in bedrooms, awaiting the estate sale, or for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to examine and claim.

Who knows how long since little children had lived there, but there were brightly colored tiles in the playroom and a stone castle wall in the backyard to attest that little ones had been a treasured part of the home. Gardens in the front and back yards featured blooming perennials, now all but choked by the grass and weeds that have only been waiting their chance for all these years.

The appliances were early 70’s museum pieces, and a beautiful spice rack – featuring some old-time spice packages – was still on one wall. I’ve walked through a few rooms like this in my life, seen the inanimate objects that now seemed even more inanimate somehow.

I can imagine the smiles when that piece of art was hung; the work clothes on the hook, sweaty from the garden; almost see the faces crowded into the breakfast booth. There are ghosts here, and not scary at all.

Anthropoid, and after

by the Night Writer

Anthropoid, adj. – resembling a human being in form.

Anthropoid was the code name for the Allied mission to parachute Czech army-in-exile commandos into Czechoslovakia in World War II to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Nazi security organization, acting Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the third-highest ranking Nazi leader behind Hitler and Himmler. He was also one of the main architects of “The Final Solution” to exterminate the Jewish race, and the one with the responsibility (and the passion) to carry this out.

Reinhard_HeydrichCold and aristocratic in appearance, Heydrich was the Nazi villain straight out of Central Casting. Czechoslovakia (what was left after the Sudetenland was given away to Hitler by the Munich Agreement) was invaded by and annexed by Germany in 1939, and Heydrich arrived in Prague in 1941 to replace the former Reichsprotektor, Konstantin von Neurath. Neurath was a diplomat by training and favored a more tolerant approach to maintaining order in the dispossessed country. His approach fell out of favor with the Nazi high command due to an active Czech Resistance that organized worker strikes and acts of sabotage to hinder the Czech manufacturing objectives so vital to the German war effort. Upon his arrival, Heydrich quickly earned the nickname “The Butcher of Prague” with his ruthless decimation of the Resistance resulting in thousands of people being executed, arrested or taken hostage as leverage against further acts.

Into this background, a squad of free Czech soldiers were parachuted into the forests near Prague to support the remaining Resistance and be as disruptive as possible. Two soldiers, Jozef Gabcík, (apologies: this blog tool can’t show Czech symbols for proper pronunciation) a Slovakian, and Jan Kubis, a Czech, had the specific assignment to assassinate Heydrich. The plan was almost laughable in its lack of detail: “Ok, lads, drop into occupied territory with minimal equipment and an outdated list of contacts (already dead or arrested) and, you know, use your training to figure something out. Oh, and good luck.”

The details of how they went about this are well, and compellingly, described in the 2016 film, Anthropoid. Ultimately, Gabcík and Kubis were able to find a prime corner in Prague where Heydrich’s Mercedes convertible would have to slow down to turn and on May 27, 1942 they attempted an ambush. Gabcík’s Sten submachine gun jammed, however when he stepped in front of the car to fire at Heydrich. When the offended Heydrich ordered his driver to stop so he could shoot at Gabcík (rather than commanding him to speed away), Kubis tried to lob a modified tank grenade into the open car, but it landed just short, with the explosion nevertheless driving shrapnel and pieces of upholstery into Heydrich’s body. As Gabcík and Kubis fled the scene, Heydrich was taken to a nearby hospital where he died a week later from septic shock caused by toxins in the upholstery of his car in a time before penicillin. Despite an immediate and thorough house-to-house search, Gabcík and Kubis and the other Czech soldiers (with the exception of Karil Curda, who fled prior to the attack to his mother’s home outside Prague) who had parachuted in were successfully hidden in a secret crypt beneath the floor of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Prague. German reprisals were immediate and heavy-handed. Some 13,000 people were arrested and as many as 5,000 are estimated to have been executed in an effort to find the assassins and identify those who had helped. Perhaps motivated by a desire to halt the harsh tactics, or  the appeal of the promised cash reward, Curda turned himself in to the Gestapo and identified the safe houses and families involved in the plot. These were raided and the people tortured until the hiding place in the church was revealed.

The wall of Sts. Cyril and Methodius church where the final shoot-out happened. Bullet holes frame the vent in the wall in which the fire department flooded the crypt. The plaque commemorates the battle and sacrifice. Ultimately, the priest, the bishop and the leaders of the church and their families were executed by the Nazis for harboring the Czech paratroopers.

The wall of Sts. Cyril and Methodius church where the final shoot-out happened. Bullet holes frame the vent in the wall in which the fire department flooded the crypt. The plaque commemorates the battle and sacrifice. Ultimately, the priest, the bishop and the leaders of the church and their families were executed by the Nazis for harboring the Czech paratroopers.

On June 18 the army and SS surrounded the church, resulting in a day-long shoot out with the paratroopers holed up there. The local fire department was pressed into service as well to flood the crypt where the few survivors were holed up. Grenades, tear-gas and bullets were also poured into the crypt, while several German soldiers were killed and wounded in the attempt. Each surviving Czech paratrooper ended up committing suicide by bullet or cyanide. Their bodies were identified by Curda, who was later executed himself.

Busts of Gabcik and Junis inside the crypt where the survivors took shelter.

Busts of Gabcik and Junis inside the crypt where the survivors took shelter.

We arrived the weekend after the 75th anniversary commemoration at the church. In addition to the bronze (and bullet holes) on the outer wall, you can visit a small museum inside that details the events (including the Munich Agreement) that led up to the Heydrich assassination and what followed. You can also enter the crypt where the final moments of the story took place. It is a sobering and thought-provoking visit, and I removed my hat as soon as I was inside and kept it off throughout our tour.

The repercussions of the assassination were not just felt by the people of Prague. Hitler’s immediate desire was that 10,000 Czechs be rounded up at random and executed as punishment. The practical Himmler suggested that would have a negative impact on manufacturing production, and suggested an alternative plan.

Lidice

The plain that was once the location of the village of Lidice.

The plain that was once the location of the village of Lidice.

On June 2, 2017, I stood in the bright sunlight, gazing at a rolling field of green with several groves of trees and some benches that looked as if it could host a golf course.

75 years prior, on June 2, 1942, a photographer also came here, to what was the village of Lidice (LEE-deet-say) to take photos of the schoolchildren. One week later, on the night of June 9, the German army and Gestapo also came – and surrounded the village.

The village consisted of just under 500 people; a bit larger than the town of Lytton, Iowa where my daughter and her family live. The men, women and children were rousted from their beds, rounded up and separated. Beginning at 7:00 a.m. on June 10, 173 men, age 15 and older, were lined up against the wall of the Horák barn, originally in groups of 5, and shot. Three riflemen were committed to each target and then a Gestapo officer shot each fallen man again in the head. The next group was brought to the wall, stepping over the bodies of those before them. Because it was taking so long, the groups were increased to 10 at a time. Later, another 11 men of Lidice who were not in the village at the time were executed in Prague, along with two teens originally thought to be 14 and spared until school records revealed they had turned 15 weeks before the massacre.

203 women and 105 children were taken away. Four pregnant women were taken to the Prague hospital where Reinhard Heydrich died after the Operation Anthropoid assassination attempt on his life that sparked the Lidice reprisal. The four women underwent forced abortions and were sent to concentration camps. The other Lidice women were sent to Ravensbruck labor camp. Orders were given that the children of Lidice were sent elsewhere with instructions to receive minimal care. Some died quickly. Another 7 were judged to be Aryan enough to be “Germanized” and were distributed to SS families for adoption. On July 2, one month after the photographer visited them, the remaining 82 children were gassed to death at the Chelmo extermination camp.

Lidice itself was wiped from the map. The 96 homes, the church, the city hall, the school: everything was burned, then the ruins exploded, and topsoil brought in to cover it all. The graves in the cemetery were opened and looted, and the remains destroyed. The stream that ran through the village was rerouted, as were the roads leading in and leading out. Nazi propaganda proudly broadcast the news throughout occupied territory and to the West as an example for others. Several towns around the world renamed themselves in a show of support and defiance. Only a handful of Lidice women ever returned.

After the war, sculptor Marie Uchytilová devoted most of her life to creating bronze statues of the murdered children, working from the photographs taken a week before the massacre. The children stand now near the edge of their village, looking toward the mass grave of their fathers and brothers.

The children of Lidice.

The children of Lidice.

My own eyes follow their line of sight, squinting. How can the sun shine so brightly, and the grass be so green, after what has happened here? The sound of a chainsaw rising and falling in a grove below me sounds, at a distance, like the laboring diesel of a tank or bulldozer. And I can’t stop squinting.

 

Was it worth it? Could the death of Heydrich justify all that was to come? Would even worse things have happened if Heydrich had lived? Is there a point to considering a single atrocity in a war full of atrocities on all sides?

This post is largely about the facts of what happened in Prague and Lidice (and I did not mention that much the same fate was visited upon the village of Lezacky). You are welcome to your own thoughts. In an upcoming post, I will share mine about the “lessons” learned here.

The Life of Patience in Prague

by the Night Writer

Patience, (aka Tiger Lilly) typically isn’t too forthcoming on Facebook about her life in Prague, but her mother and I hear about nearly everything via Face Time and Messenger. She moved here n November of 2015 and it was good to meet some of the people and visit some of the venues that have become a big part of her life here.

In our first sojourn in Prague back in 2015, my wife found Kaldi, a great little coffee shop that was one of her favorites. It is now one of Patience's favorites, though she goes for the chai rather than the coffee. She has become friendly with the barista, Sylvie (pictured), and the owner, Jan. Of course, Kaldi was the choice when we kicked off our first day of this trip. When we seated Sylvie came over to tell Patience that they had just received two new kinds of chai that she just had to try.

In our first sojourn in Prague back in 2015, my wife found Kaldi, a great little coffee shop that was one of her favorites. It is now one of Patience’s favorites, though she goes for the chai rather than the coffee. She has become friendly with the barista, Sylvie (pictured), and the owner, Jan. Of course, Kaldi was the choice when we kicked off our first day of this trip. When we were seated Sylvie came over to tell Patience that they had just received two new kinds of chai that she needed to try.

 

There's small park, Vojanovy, nestled in the heart of the city that is Patience's favorite. You get to it from a busy, narrow street through an arched opening in a wall that you almost have to be looking for to see. Inside, the grounds are lush and you, remarkably, can't hear the city at all. You just hear the twittering of birds and the shriek of the resident peacock. There's a trail and a pond, and this time of year the area is especially lush.

There’s small park, Vojanovy, nestled in the heart of the city that is Patience’s favorite. You get to it from a busy, narrow street through an arched opening in a wall that you almost have to be looking for to see. Inside, the grounds are lush and you, remarkably, can’t hear the city at all. You just hear the twittering of birds and the shriek of the resident peacock. There’s a trail and a pond, and this time of year the area is especially lush.

One of Patience's employers, Steven, has a friend named Laus who sometimes helps them out at festivals and such. He and Patience share an interest in fine food and drink, and in classical music. Laus is also very knowledgeable about the city and it's culture and he's helped Patience learn more about this special place and it's history. It was a pleasure to meet him for lunch. (The restaurant, http://www.tristoleti.cz/index.php/cs/ was a great place to meet, too; elegant yet also affordable, and great food.

One of Patience’s employers, Steven, has a friend named Laus who sometimes helps them out at festivals and such. He and Patience share an interest in fine food and drink, and in classical music. Laus is also very knowledgeable about the city and its culture and he’s helped Patience learn more about this special place and it’s history. It was a pleasure to meet him for lunch. (The restaurant, Tri Stoletti,  was a great place to meet, too; elegant yet also affordable, and great food.)

Patience also nannies part-time for Reanna, and her children: Rhea and Bella.

Patience also nannies part-time for Reanna, and her children: Rhea and Bella.

And of course, there is Steven, head chef and owner at U Emy Destinnové, where Patience also works. Here Steven is giving the Reverend Mother some cooking tips:"This is what we call a strawberry."

And of course, there is Steven, head chef and owner at U Emy Destinnové, where Patience also works. Here Steven is giving the Reverend Mother some cooking tips:”This is what we call a strawberry.”

Back to the beloved daughter, in the beloved country

by the Night Writer

We’re going back to Prague, leaving early Saturday morning. Way too early. But on the other end is Tiger Lilly and a city that, in barely two months of total time we’ve spent there, has started to feel almost like home. We noticed this last fall when we returned; both my wife and I commenting how familiar everything looked and felt after our sojourn the year before.

Besides that, Tiger Lilly loves the place, to the point where it will be hard to let go when the time comes, and whatever has a special place in her heart holds one in ours as well. After a week with her we will be on to Budapest for nearly a month where I will open my “Hungarian Office”. I expect the blog will resume during our travels as we experience this old, but new to us, world.

For now, here are some of Tiger Lilly’s thoughts about the place that tickles her spine while it tears at her heart.

Getting Acquainted With the Republic

When I think of Prague, I think of the streets before I think of the spires. Uniformly uneven and covered in all manner of mysterious stains– best not to think where most of them came from.

When I think of life in Prague, I think of the birds before I think of the people. The pigeons and magpies are abundant, but birdsong is always present from dozens of unseen feathery throats.

When I think of the people of Prague, I think of my colleague before I think of the crowds. Reserve, or course, it’s natural to keep it to yourself — but not in revolution, and not in love.

When I think of eating in Prague, I think of the language before I think of the food. Straightforward and without too much subtlety, but come in, get warm, the wind is bitter tonight and there’s company (and good beer) to be shared here.

And when I think of Czech, I hear the language pouring from his lips in a rolling rhythm, spoken into the empty dining room or thrown in unmistakable curses at the pigeons. I hear the intent through the impossible tangle of tense before I understand the meaning, rozumiš?

 

Varicosity

Soles pounding a staccato heartbeat into the cobbled streets,
Stars swallowed up by walls and fog.
The city moans, howls, roars,
And I am headed home.

My veins rise from my legs like embroidery—
No, like risen trenches,
Too many nights spent standing
For things I believe in,
But don’t know how to voice.

Lord, let me forget there was ever
Such a thing as war.

 

Momentary Migrant

Lord, there is something in my chest
Whenever I think about the city these days.
I am just another ghost,
Winding my way through the uneven lanes
Of a city already overflowing with them.

I have carved out my niche in eternity,
Made a home for myself in the afterlife,
And the city does not remark upon my passing.

It won’t be long before the city is the ghost,
Winding its way through unfamiliar lanes
And dark corners of memory,
As difficult to retain as smoke.
This time I am the one expected to carry on.

I hold the language like a handful of pebbles in my mouth,
Cut my teeth on every consonant,
Stumble over every syllable.

I do not know how to hold on to you.

 

 

 

Three Years On (and On)

by the Night Writer

(reposted from No Longer I Who Live)

One week ago, the day before Easter, I spoke before our monthly men’s breakfast and told them that there is a difference between facts and truth. “The facts were,” I said, “that Jesus was dead. They took his body down off the cross, wrapped it, and put it in a tomb, rolled the stone across the entrance – and left him for dead. That’s all they knew. The Truth was something much greater and even unimaginable.”

Then I said, “Two years and 51 weeks ago, the doctors at the Mayo Clinic told me that the facts were that I had ALS and I had 3 years to live, and the last year was not going to be a very pleasant one. They said the facts were that my body was going to deteriorate, I was going to be in a wheelchair, and need an oxygen tube and feeding tube until I ultimately wasted away.”

I stepped out from behind the lectern – on my own two feet (no cane, no braces)  – so the men could see me in full, and far from being wasted away. I smiled, inviting them to laugh, and they did, softly at first and then louder as I looked down and regarded myself as well.

“The Truth,” I said, “is something more. God healed me of ALS,” and then they were clapping, cheering and stomping their feet.


Three years ago today, April 22, 2014, my wife and I received that diagnoses, and the apparent death sentence. To say that the rest of that week was the most surreal in my life would not be an exaggeration. Faith and family, as you know, were the key pillars then and going forward, as you can see if you back through this blog. To some extent, a blunt diagnoses such as that can be extremely clarifying. “If the doctors say there is nothing man can do,” I reasoned to myself, “then that only leaves God.” Galatians 2:20 came to me: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” If I was as good as dead, then it truly was “no longer I who lived” and that became both my focus and the name of this blog that I started a few days after the diagnosis.

If you’ve been following along here, you’ll know that 13 months after I was diagnosed I was undiagnosed, also at the Mayo. I still had some symptoms, but I was too healthy. Since then I’ve continued the story here sporadically. There were additional miracles to report (as you can scroll down to read), but also a life to live. My youngest daughter moved to Prague in late 2015 and we flew over there for 9 weeks as she transitioned, and we returned there last fall with our oldest daughter and newest grandchild. These and many other things were blessings we could barely have foreseen while sitting in that doctor’s office 3 years ago.

image

There has been great joy in our lives since that sentence was lifted, but I have also known some pain and some sadness. The sadness stems from the fact that ALS still has a spectral hold on me. Several people who I came to know during my time with the disease have since succumbed, and new people have been added. A friend and former co-worker was diagnosed and is fading rapidly. Another man I had met and known when he was the radio voice of the Minnesota Vikings in the 90s died of ALS last month, and I was greatly moved (and saddened) to read recently of the University of Minnesota scheduling a special one-person graduation ceremony in March so a PALS father could watch his son graduate because he was not likely to live long enough for the May ceremony.

These things touch me on a deep and personal level that is hard to explain. It frustrates me to know that others suffer, and more than once in the last year I have asked the question that I never asked  in that first year: “Why me?” I take no pride and put no stock in my own piety as having anything to do with it. There are likely people with more faith than me, and as many (and more) good reasons to live as I have, who have died, or are dying of this brutal disease. It is hard not to dwell on this at times, but I resist trying to “figure it out”. Man trying to “figure out” the ways of God is responsible for a lot of bad doctrine and pop theology out there because we insist that God’s ways make sense to us. I came to the realization that my healing was really not much different from my salvation. In both instances i had done nothing to deserve such boons, yet God had moved on my behalf, even before I knew what I needed or could ask for it. I can only trust and assume that there is a reason for it, and that reason (or reasons) will be evident in time. And, perhaps, it already is.

I mentioned the pain I’ve experienced. I wasn’t referring to emotional pain or spiritual unrest, but severe, even crippling pain like I had never known in my experience of knee surgeries, abdominal surgery and back surgery. Late last year I ended up with a case of severe carpal tunnel in both my right and left hands and wrists. Nobody has ever died of this, but I never felt so much like I wanted to. I couldn’t move my hands or arms without pain, and I couldn’t sleep for more than 20 minutes or so before I had to move my hands again, causing me to wake up. I prayed, I struggled, I ultimately ended up getting a cortisone short in my left wrist and surgery on my right one; the recovery, too, was more painful and longer-lasting than anything I’d previously experienced. I even dipped into the prescription opiods that I’d been able to do without after previous surgeries. I was pretty miserable, and even asked God a couple of times why this was such a challenge after what I’d already received and experienced. No answer was forthcoming, until I went back to the Mayo for a post-op follow-up with my orthopedic surgeon.

The Mayo Clinic is a huge campus; the main exam buildings are 15 stories, and when my wife and I came out of my appointment in the orthopedic section we saw a couple from Iowa in the waiting room that we had met at my son-in-law’s first church out of seminary. They had been real sweethearts to Faith and Ben and the kids, which is how we got to know them. They also knew my testimony, and as we talked to them that day in the waiting room they described the tests the wife had been undergoing for numbness in her feet. The tests and symptoms sounded all-to-familiar to us. My wife said we should pray for them, and they were all in favor of it. Without any self-consciousness, we held hands right there and I prayed. I don’t remember what words I used, but I know I asked God to bring them peace and to do what He had done in my life. As we were praying my wife noticed that a woman sitting in the row in front of us was leaning back toward us to listen, and was crying. When we finished my wife asked that woman if she would like prayer for anything as well.

“Oh, yes,” she said, still in tears. “I was diagnosed this morning with ALS.”

“God healed my husband of ALS,” my wife said. Along with our friends from Iowa, we poured out even more for her right then and there. There was peace in her face when we finished and as we talked more about what she was going through and what I had experienced. Her mother was with her; they had driven up from Arkansas to see the doctors at the Mayo – and just so happened to be sitting in that row, in that waiting room, at that time. We exchanged phone numbers and later that evening she called me to talk some more. She told me that she had just been saved a few weeks prior to coming to the Mayo. I told her that when I was diagnosed I didn’t know  just what God was going to do, but I believed He would do something. “I don’t know exactly what God will do for you, or how,” I said, “but the fact that He could so orchestrate things so that we could meet today, right when you needed to hear this, gives me a lot of hope and confidence.” Since then we have been checking in with each other every 4 to 6 weeks. (Oh, and the first person we prayed for that day ended up getting very good news from her tests: no ALS, just a  neuropathy in her foot that could be treated with therapy.)


I addressed this in similar fashion with the men at the breakfast last week; most of whom are going through life-altering trials and challenges of their own. “I don’t know why I am still here today, but I’m pretty sure that speaking to you is a big part of it.”

– April 22, 2017

One of my favorite songs is “The Sea” by the 80s group, The Waterboys. I listened to this song often in the year after I was diagnosed, and in the time since then. Land-locked all of my life, I have always been mesmerized by the sea whenever I’ve had a chance to look upon it. Similarly, this song always helped calm my mind whenever I tried to get too much into “figure it out” mode during this adventure, and brought me peace. The music critics often describe the song-writer, Mike Scott as a “mystic”, but the meaning of these verses has always been clear to me. This life is the river, and it leads to the sea. All the things I know, or think I know, as I navigate this river pale when I have glimpsed the sea and what awaits.

I am not afraid of the shore. 

Reflections of a latter-day Hussite

by the Night Writer

600 years ago, reformist priest Jan Hus was burned at the stake by the Church.

600 years ago, reformist priest Jan Hus was burned at the stake by the Church. A memorial to he and his followers stands prominently in Prague’s Old Town Square.

One of our first circuits of Prague back in November came from a Hop On/Hop Off tour that took us past several impressive churches and cathedrals. The recorded narration, however, said that despite these impressive edifices, the Czech Republic is currently the most atheistic country in Europe, with just 13% of the population saying they go to church. “Therefore,” the narrator said, “most of these churches now belong, unfortunately, to history.”

Oh, but what a religious history! While Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) was part of the Holy Roman Empire since the early Middle Ages, ruled by kings and emperors appointed or sanctioned by Popes, it was at the forefront of church reform and the Bohemian Reformation, fully 100 years before Luther, Calvin and Zwingli sparked the Protestant Reformation. Czech priest Jan Hus, heavily influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe in England, was a popular and highly respected figure in Prague and he spoke, preached and wrote extensively about reforming the Church by basing doctrine and practice on scripture rather than man-made traditions, and he opposed the ethics of the Church selling indulgences and collecting fees from parishioners for nearly every function related to life and death. Among other things he wrote that the “Body of Christ” consisted of all believers and not, as held by the Church, just the Cardinals. He also preached and wrote his theological essays in the common language, rather than Latin. These and other things didn’t go over well with the Church which systematically tried to burn all of the writings of Wycliffe and Hus that it could get its hands on. When that didn’t settle things, they burned Hus; he was invited to the Council of Constance with the guarantee of safe passage from King Sigismund – and was then arrested, tried and burned at the stake for heresy 600 years ago in 1415. (When Sigismund protested these acts due to his promise of safe passage the  prelates assured him that promises to heretics were non-binding). Hus was given the chance to recant and said he would do so gladly if the Council could only show him where, in scripture, he was wrong.

For political, economic and spiritual reasons however, (and because the followers that became known as the Hussites defeated five consecutive papal military crusades against them on the battlefield), Bohemia for the next 200 years was generally allowed greater freedom in its worship and doctrines (not that there weren’t periodic rounds of more burnings, beheadings, hangings and defenestrations in the name of God). The Church’s determination to rein in these reforms ultimately sparked the beginning of the Thirty Years War, which soon evolved from an authority and doctrine dispute into a geo-political maelstrom that was essentially a “World War” for the time, embroiling most of the continent and laying waste to countries, economies and dynasties. While Bohemia became, nominally, Catholic again the war essentially spelled the end of the Holy Roman Empire.

That’s my 20,000 foot summary of an intense and complex time; you can follow the links to get down to the 10,000 foot level, and spend the rest of your life trying to sort out all the repercussions and implications that continue to this day. I offer these paragraphs merely as a modicum of context for you as I roamed the cities and religious monuments of Central Europe, meditating on the past while the present surges around us in a our own maelstrom.

pipe organ

Esztergom Basilica pipe organ.

For example, on November 14 I sat inside the Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, looking at the marble floors, ornate walls, detailed paintings and very impressive pipe organ. It was the day after the attacks in Paris and I thought about what ISIS or the Taliban or similar group might do to this edifice if it fell into their hands. A quick historical check, however, showed that the basilica had, in fact, already been sacked by the Turks in its history – and also by other Catholic armies in the many internecine wars that have afflicted this land.

End-times cults are not new, either. The Hussites, for all their military prowess and spiritual focus, fell into internal discord. They criticized the ethics of the Church for being unscripturally focused on wealth and power, and taught that doctrine should be “sola scriptura” (scripture alone). Which lead, inevitably I suppose, to factions arguing over who was most pure. One hard-line group within the Hussites saw their purpose as to hasten the return of Christ, by bloodshed if necessary, and took their name – the Taborites – from Mt. Tabor, described in scripture as the place where Jesus will appear.What we see is that doctrine – Catholic or Protestant – is often an imperfect prism of truth. We may grasp a profound truth that, in the greater scheme of things, is relatively no bigger than the jawbone of an ass, but in our hands becomes a cudgel.

A line from the sacred text comes to mind: “What can man do in the face of such reckless hate?” (That text was from the “The Two Towers”, and yes, I know, that was how it appeared in the screenplay, not the book. No fatwas, please.) The question is valid for at least the last 600 years, and no, I’m not making a moral equivalency argument. There is no such thing as “moral equivalency”: you’ve either taken on the nature of Christ or you haven’t. All other measurements on any scale you (or I) come up with are ultimately meaningless. Still, the idea that people could somehow see God glorified by the heinous death of others is so profoundly twisted that to me it can only be proof of a Devil and not, as the humanists might say, proof that there is no God. What part of the Son of God dying for Man requires making other men die violently for God? What part of being transformed by the renewing of my mind implies forcibly conforming others? I don’t think I could, now, personally take up arms or do violence to others simply because they thought differently or sinned differently from me.

But could I, would I, if the other was trying to harm me? I don’t know. My religious freedom is dear to me – and has cost others dearly. The desire for freedom is strong in humans, as strong as the human desire to dominate others. I know the anger and sorrow that I felt in watching the film clips of the Soviet troops and secret police falling upon the Czech students in 1968. Could I have remained quiet if I had been there in those days? Could I have stilled my heart and thoughts to try and hear from God what He wanted me to do, or would I have rushed forward in righteous outrage, hoping that was the right answer?

I believe that the desire for freedom is something God has placed inside us. Even the Czechs, oppressed in the 20th century first by the Nazis (who offered a twisted God) and then the Communists (who insisted and taught that there isn’t a God), could not have the desire for freedom beat or squeezed out of them. And from a certain perspective, I can understand their supposed atheism today. For all their beautiful churches and illustrious history, they may be justified, after the last 80 years, in being suspicious of anyone or anything that wants to tell them the “right” way to think. After being ignored, then betrayed and then bombed by the Christian West and then oppressed by the God-less, they could wonder why they should think about God when He doesn’t appear to be thinking of them. The beautiful churches must seem like the living room full of nice furniture and precious objects I wasn’t allowed to go into when I was a kid (nor did I deserve to). They desire freedom, and no doubt would like to see what that looks like – how can our lives demonstrate that?

The fact is, however, we all have “reasonable” reasons to doubt God exists, whether we’ve been oppressed by totalitarian regimes or not. Ultimately, it wasn’t theory or doctrine or a church building that proved His existence to me, but seeing His word made true and coming alive through others and in my life. Touring the cathedrals and basilicas I was reminded of a teaching from a few years ago: God moves, and the move becomes a Movement. The Movement becomes a Monument to what God has done, but also an excuse to focus on the monument rather than continuing to stay tuned to the Move. Ultimately, the human result is that the Monument becomes a Mausoleum. The people of the Czech Republic – or our neighbors – aren’t going to know God is real just because of a church building, but by our lives and the way we reflect His love. Ultimately, He’s not looking for a church as much as He is looking for us to be the Church.

To go any further with my reflections and what those meant to me in Prague I’d need to bring things from the 20,000 or 10,000 foot level down to the 100 foot level. I’m not going to do that now, but I will in a later post. (Yes, I believe I’ll keep the doors open here at the blog for at least a little while longer). For now, let me leave you with two things.

First, as we discussed the history of revelation, revolution, oppression, and – hopefully – more revelation, a particular hymn came to mind. Tiger Lilly could also feel it, and agreed to sing the hymn a cappella (which, coincidentally, means “in the manner of the chapel” in Italian) for our church back home and this blog. See the link below.

Finally, it seems appropriate to leave you for now with the words of Jan Hus, inscribed on his monument, and taken from his last letter to his followers:

“Love each other and wish the truth to everyone.”

 

At the Museum of Communism

by the Night Writer

Museum of CommunismI saw this museum advertised the first day we were in Prague and made a note to see it while we were here. I loved the poster, for one thing. It came down to our last weekend and I realized we still needed to go, so we set out. I have to say it is one of the most affecting places I’ve visited over here.

The Czechs are not known for their sense of humor, but it can be found, such as their placing this museum in the same building as a McDonald’s, next to a casino, and across the street from Benetton. There are also some rather rude jokes at the expense of the Russians and Communism in the gift shop, but the museum itself is serious. One might even say, “deadly serious.”

I could write in greater detail about my impressions, but perhaps it’s better to let the people who lived through it do it in their way. I took photos of some of the English-language placards that accompanied the photos and displays. These are also available in French, German, Czech, and several other languages for greater edification. Let’s let them tell the story.

text

“…authorized to issue temporary decrees enforcing laws without any approval of the parliament…” hmmm?

text

Targeting opponents with heinous accusations and show trials, and extravagant media campaigns.

text

A “shock-workers” movement to push laborers to maximum effort, and trade unions declaring that “after the victory of socialism, laborer’s wages would not be important.”

text

Supply and Demand? Why, there ought to be a law…

text

Those in power always find a way to get their luxury goods. Or their groceries.

text

There are no spiritual values, outside the State. There is no beauty, but what serves the State. There is no eternity…but the State. Rape, pillage and pollute the land and consequently the people; it doesn’t matter as long as the State benefits. 

text

A well-regulated militia?

text

You can’t find a more “well-regulated” militia than that: armed groups established by the government as “the fist of the labor class” to intimidate its enemies, especially the labor class. Of course, they couldn’t be trusted with bullets for their guns.

MC 9

 

To get a better feel for the exhibits, take the virtual tour here.

You wind your way through the rooms of the museum in what was once the Savarin Palace. The exhibits feature authentic memorabilia, though “memorabilia” is such a trifling-sounding word that implies nostalgia, and the memories here are far from fond. The last portion on your way out (before the gift shop, Comrade Lenin) is devoted to a small viewing room that plays a short film in a loop describing Czech life from the Communist takeover to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It was called the “Velvet” Revolution because shots weren’t fired, but that does not mean it was peaceful or that the history leading up to it wasn’t bloody.

I can remember, as a kid, watching the news in 1969 as the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to crush the “Prague Spring” and any nascent hopes of reform within the Czech Communist Party. This, too, was depicted in the film and on the wall outside the viewing room: riots, beatings, tear-gassing, armed troops and war-machines rolling over the cobblestones of Wenceslas Square that we’d come to know so well, plain-clothes agents in the crowd tackling and kicking protesters, plus accounts of three students who self-immolated in protest against Communist control.Despite the incessant cradle-to-grave indoctrination, propagandizing, intimidation and spying, the Communists couldn’t stamp out hope and a desire for freedom from such a dehumanizing existence.

Communist doctrine often referred to the “inevitability of history” and Communism’s ultimate victory, yet by the 1980s, history was clearly turning against Communism as Poland, Hungary and East Germany shook off the shackles of totalitarianism. Even so, Czechoslovakia’s escape was not a done deal. The first protest drew maybe 10,000 to Wenceslas; as the week went on the numbers grew, until finally 500,000 were crowding in every night to apply pressure and turn the tables of intimidation as they watched their one-time rulers caving in. (Velvet Revolution timeline and summary here).  Blood was still being spilled; certain claws do not release easily, after all. The film ends with a bittersweet poem and images describing how much sweeter survival is after all the bitter pain that preceded it.

As I said, it is very affecting. As we left, I stopped at the desk of the woman who had sold us our tickets. She was about my age, and would have seen 1969 and 1989, and spoke very good English. She was standing, and turned to me. “Thank you,” I said, and she responded with a small, polite smile. “And thank you to people of Prague,” I added, and received a slow, solemn nod.

Crying out, and crying it out

by the Night Writer

20 years ago I started to experience strange stress reactions that hit me like bouts of food poisoning. The first couple of times it happened I thought it was food poisoning. Whenever it hit, I knew I was going to have to stick close to a bathroom for the next 8 to 12 hours. I soon twigged to the stress triggers, though, that were really behind it. My brain would seek to sublimate and compartmentalize things that were going on at work, but my body would only put up with so much of that before it insisted on purging.What I recognized was that there was an area of my life that I hadn’t given the care over to God, and that holding onto this myself was becoming toxic. Once I recognized that, and released these stress factors to Him, the attacks stopped. Even the year that I lived with a death sentence spoken over my life, I never had another attack.

Until yesterday afternoon and throughout the night last night, that is.

When the attack started I again thought it was food poisoning from the slice of pizza I’d had at a corner shop by our apartment. I soon recognized my old, familiar, “friend.” As the waves wracked my body I tried to identify the source, to put my finger on what it was I’d been ignoring. It wasn’t work; I’ve got a great job that lets me “work from home” from anywhere I can cadge WiFi. I “pushed” various buttons to check the response, and knew I had hit the right one when the tears started pouring down my face. Can you guess what it was?

Poppy Warmer 1 Continue reading

The Big Mac and Little Mac costs of living in Prague

by the Night Writer

Tiger Lilly’s research into the cost of living in Prague was pretty spot on. You can get by pretty affordably here. But as my new barber friend said the other day, “The cost of living is low, but the cost of goods is high.” That is, his experience is that while food, drink and rent are relatively low, the cost of clothes, tools, equipment, computers, etc. can be very expensive.

The ever-useful Czech Ex-Pat website featured an interesting economic comparison sheet, developed by The Economist website, comparing the relative costs of obtaining a Big Mac in more than 40 countries (the Big Mac was chosen because it is almost universally available and is consistent in size and ingredients across all locations). According to the index, the CR is in the lower third of countries, paying $2.98 for the two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun. The most expensive is Switzerland at $6.44; the least expensive is Venezuela, .66. (You might not be able to find toilet paper in Venezuela, but you can get a Big Mac – and save the wrapper.) The complementary “Little Mac” index compares the price of iPad minis around the globe; the Czech price is about 9% lower than the global average.

text

Take-away food from a stall is very reasonable. A large slab of pizza will go for little more than a dollar and change (USD) and a half-liter of beer (and everyone sells beer) goes for about the same, and restaurants typically feature entrees that are less than $10. One of our first nights in Prague we went to an Italian restaurant; I’d had a big lunch but was a little hungry. I saw pizza on the menu for about $8 and assumed that that was probably a small or “personal” pizza, and thought that felt about like what I was looking for.Turns out that pepperoni pizza was 14″ – no way I was going to be able to finish it (and it was very tasty) and we didn’t have a refrigerator in our hotel in order to bring home leftovers. It was such a waste! Bars and restaurants, btw, seem to be the main industry in town. In our neighborhood there are at least 3 on every block, and they offer a lot of variety in cuisine.

Wages are also relatively low, though. The average monthly income in the CR is a little around $1,100 at current exchange rates. I also get the sense from talking to my barber that it’s normal for people to have multiple part-time jobs. Tiger Lilly has been looking for jobs, and there aren’t any full-time ones advertised (the “full-time” work mentioned by the school where she earned her TEFL certification turned out to be 22 hours, and some teacher said they often didn’t get that). She has seen part-time positions suited to her skills and experience that pay about $12/hour before tax. If she lands one of these, she’ll be able to meet her expenses for the most part. She found a large, private room with wonderful views in an apartment near Wenceslas Square for about $350 a month, which is low for the area, so she’s feeling blessed.

Not needing a car is a big cost-savings for most folks. The city is compact enough to be well-served with public transit that gets you close to anywhere you want to go. (A standard 75-minute bus/tram/metro pass costs about a buck; you can get a 24-hour pass for less than $5; a month-long pass runs you $28. When we were in London in 2006, day-long Tube passes for 4 people cost me $40).

Clothing is not as affordable as the food; a pair of jeans can be 30 Euros (the CR currency is the crown, or koruna, but bigger ticket items are often priced in both the euro and the koruna). Second hand clothing shops, called SROs, are very common and import their goods from other western European countries – so don’t expect the Czechs to be cutting edge in fashion.

Actually, living here reminds me a lot of being in college. Food and drink are plentiful and affordable, everyone does a couple of part-time things for work, wears older clothes and few people drive. Tiger Lilly earned her B.A. mostly through self-study via College Plus, with some classes at a local community college. She received a comprehensive education, but not much of the so-called “college experience”. By moving to Prague she’ll get that “experience” – and it won’t cost us over $100,000 to do so!