Grief piece by piece

“YES!” The small piece made a clicking sound as it found its place in the new jigsaw puzzle. It continuously took shape on the table of our sitting room leaving only a small space for other objects like a cup of milky tea. The fire was crackling in the back ground as I crouched over the mysterious picture slowly taking shape in front of me. The colorful and comic like drawing amused me as one piece after the other found its place. The displayed humor fit perfectly to the memories rising up from the depth of my soul like warm bubbles as every new puzzle piece clicked into its place.

Puzzling accompanies me and my family now almost a year. Presently, it is a sign of grief and remembrance as I feel drawn closer to one of the dearest people in my life, who I had lost too early and too quickly almost a year ago.

Just three weeks before his sudden passing away, we had spend a lovely holiday together. As we puzzled hours after hours, we talked a lot and just marveled at the gift of time, friendship and the deep connection we felt. Each time a puzzle piece found its place, he smiled accompanying it with a loud “YES!!!”. His voice still rings in my ears. As I repeated this gesture many times, yes thousands of times over the last year, it makes me feel closer to him. The memories give me strength. Life is different. It is lonely at times. His passing away has left a hole in my heart. But I have to honor his memories and his life as he is and will be an inspiration: No other person have I ever met was grounded so deeply in faith and loved so kindly beyond boundaries.

Grief is a difficult thing. I know that as a pastor as I have accompanied so many. I know it personally as I have lost numerous people dear to me. Grief needs different expressions. Mine is puzzling and evoking precious memories piece by piece.

If you out there are grieving, please be reminded that God loves you. May the memories of the loved one fill your heart and being with joy until you once meet again in God´s eternity.

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If you are curious about the puzzles, we use: The humorous puzzles are from Wasjig. They are a hilarious piece of art combined with a mystery to solve.

The Slippery Slope starts with Words

The silence was ear deafening. One by one candles were lit by the tender hands of the female Rabbi. As the mourners kaddish filled the room said by numerous Jewish and Interreligious voices the grief formed a strong bond of commitment binding together the gathered people of different walks of life and faith.

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The slippery slope starts with words.” David Harris, Chief Executive and CEO of AJC, reminded in a calm and even more so intense voice of how the path leading to the Holocaust began long before the Kristallnacht on Nov 9, 1938. The big auditorium of the German General Consulate was filled to the brink as AJC together with the German Consul General David Gill and Ruth Zimbler, a 90 year old Kristallnacht survivor, commemorated together this despicable and tragic moment in German history.

I shivered in my seat as the events past and present simultaneously went through my mind. Kristallnacht began way before 1938. But in my mind they suddenly appeared isochronal. Wiping away the 80 year divide with one blink of an eye and a simple, but ever so wise statement.

The slippery slope starts with words.

Most beginnings are quiet. Almost silent or with few words change will begin to unfold. No one back in the spring of 1912 as Hitler was stranded in a Men´s home in Vienna had ever thought this drop-out and postcard painter would later become the greatest criminal and murderer of over 6 million people. Back then, his audience was small as he voiced his thoughts about race and inferiority of the Jews. Hitler then was still the underestimated outsider. The underdog. A existence he later very successfully used to climb to the highest political ranks as he spread disaster of almost the whole world.

My eyes were fixated to the lit memorial candles as if I tried to hold on to hope despite disaster past and present. But the sentence had a tight grip to my thoughts as I could feel my heartbeat increase even though I was sitting.

The slippery slope starts with words.”

As my head was spinning my thoughts were pulled to Germany of January 1933. It was in the office of the Reich President that Hindenburg expressed is great satisfaction that the political right had at last united against all the liberal and democratic forces. As Hitler himself swore he would act in the good of the whole nation, Hindenburg gave this political newcomer his blessings. In one voice, as it is stated through different sources, the call of Hitler as new Reichs Chancellor was underpinned with a single sentence: “And now, gentlemen, forward with God.”

As a woman of God, a faith leader and a German this heresy and abuse of faith is deeply hurtful. Even then, many, even Hindenburg, hadn’t suspected that they were already on a slippery slope leading to disaster, murder and destruction.

The slippery slope starts with words.”

May this sentence remind us of the power of words, which can develop the beautiful and more so the disastrous. “The Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, compared to the previous year — including bomb threats, assaults, vandalism, and anti-Semitic posters and literature found on college campuses.” (1) Words of hate and anti-Semitism lead to the deadliest attack towards Jews in the US in Pittsburgh as eleven innocent believers were murdered by a white supremacist. We know by now that the perpetrator Robert Bowers was encouraged and fed by anti-Semitic words and thoughts expressed by numerous sources.

The dehumanizing words presently used in politics are leading to a never before experienced rise in hate crimes. Murders like the one of the Pittsburgh Eleven, the two African-American in Kentucky, and “smaller” despicable acts in numerous shapes and sizes against women, LGBTQ, and other marginalized people are changing the shape and form of a free and accepting US-society.

In Germany it once began with small words and ideas uttered in back yards, at ordinary tables and in small groups. They infected others and spread hate like a deadly cancer in German society.

I sighed as my eyes fixated the candles. Never again. If the world is again on the path of a slippery slope, it will be our responsibility to hold against this trend as courageous as we are able to. As God commands us: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)


(1) NY Times

Though I walk through the valley of death

Voices rose around me. Grieving people from all walks of life spoke in one voice. Jews, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Roman Catholics joined in the ancient Psalm 23 and filled the dense air of the meeting room with hope beyond grief.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me besides the still waters.

In the midst of preparations for the high holidays of Pesach and Easter, members of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Consuls from numerous countries, clergy, and friends had gathered in Midtown Manhattan to show solidarity with the Jewish Community by sharing the grief about the assassination of Mireille Knoll. The French Holocaust survivor had been brutally murdered on March 23rd in her apartment in Paris and is the newest victim of antisemitism.

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The 85-year old, who suffered Parkinson’s disease, was stabbed to death by two Jihadists. A senseless and brutal end to a life that had been ever so burdensome through the suffering of the Holocaust. Mrs. Mireille Knoll had barely escaped with her life as a ten year old in the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris in July 1942. Thousands of Jewish women, men, and children had been locked into the Vélodrome d’Hiver to be deported to concentration camps in the East. She returned to France after its liberation and married Mr. Knoll, a Auschwitz survivor. The couple was blessed with two sons. But after the nightmares of the Holocaust she had not been granted a peaceful death, but violence and hatred ended a life too quickly.

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name´s sake.

Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

My heart sank as I spoke the old biblical words, which are my Baptismal verses. Yes, Europe is facing one of the greatest challenges since World War II. Antisemitism, racism, exclusion of those, who are different is on the rise. This senseless and brutal death was its newest expression.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

In their history Jews had to face uncounted enemies. It is like a red thread woven through the countless centuries of the ancient nation. Prosecution, death and murder accompanied their struggle for freedom. In many ways their history and the way they are treated is like a litmus test showing the state of nations and societies. “We have been dealt with like the bird in the cage of a mine. As soon as the bird stopped singing, the miner knew he would need to leave it to safe his life. We are done with being the bird”, David Harris, the AJC Chief Executive Officer, emphasized at the commemoration. What a powerful picture to choose.

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As a Lutheran growing up in the safety of a small, closely knit community in Germany, I never had to suffer abuse or prosecution. I had never been excluded due to skin color, religion, or heritage. I can’t grasp, how terrible it might feel having to endure this generation after generation. Or being forced to grapple with the murder of loved ones. But as a German, bearing the weight of my ancestors and my nations crimes, I am committed to stand up against antisemitism, race, and hate. And many others partaking in the commemoration and beyond are as well, emphasizing the common ground of “Loving neighbor and self”. A glimpse of hope in times of trouble.

It is my constant prayer that these signs of hope will develop into a shield against the evil forces of hatred as more and more pull together as they feel their responsibility for peace. Governments and religions. Representatives and individuals.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

May the memory of Mireille Knoll forever be a blessing.

May Europe wake up through her senseless murder before it is too late.

When stubborn altar candles are witnesses for Christ

Sunday mornings always follow a beloved ritual: after preparing the sanctuary for the upcoming service, I welcome worshippers one by one as I make my way through the old sanctuary.  And as usual, I could already see the dismay of an elderly lady, who sat at the far right side in one of the last pews, as I moved towards her. After greeting her and exchanging small talk, she pulled me closer to herself. “Pastor!”, she said in a load, booming voice, “haven’t you seen the tall right altar candle? It´s crooked again!” As every Sunday I apologized to her and then moved quickly through the isle, up five steps to the altar, reaching up high to the stubborn candle and shifting it back into its place.

When I passed the elderly congregant, she nodded in approval and the service could begin. Hymn by hymn, prayer by prayer, reading by reading passed. And slowly but surely, the altar candle as most Sundays made it´s way back into it´s original position. Leaning in a self confident inwardly as if it were pointing towards the cross.

Seldom one Sunday passed without this kind of interactive ritual. After thoroughly looking at the candle holder and applying all kinds of remedies like paper and other material to keep the candle from slipping, I gave in to the stubborn altar candle. Submitting myself to the always present ritual of being adamantly reminded, correcting the candle and watching while it made it´s way back into the old position.

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It was one weekday afternoon that completely changed my view on this ritual. As I walked through the Sanctuary tired and weary from a incident, the beautiful silence of our church calmed my turbulent thoughts. I sat down in the front pew to find guidance in the daily scripture reading, but instead of giving me relief from the troubles around me, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was one I surely didn’t want to hear today. I sighed as I read about Jesus way to the cross.

It was the unbelievable ironical words of one of the criminals, who was crucified together with the messiah, which sent shivers down my spine. ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’  His words seemed to me a symbol of complete resignation to the world, to God and the messiah.

Instead of waiting for a reply from Jesus, the second criminal answered to this grim question: ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

As the words of the second criminal unfolded in the biblical reading, my eyes went from the bible up to the right altar candle, which was still stubbornly leaning inwards to the cross.

The brave answer and confession of the criminal led to a wonderful eternal perspective as Jesus articulated a promise beyond the criminals guilt: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’  By confessing his sins, the criminal had completely laid his faith and trust into the hands of God. And it seemed to me as if the candle was not able to do it differently, but to lean towards the cross.

The stubborn altar candle was a silent, but very persistent witness of the crucifixion. Now, Sunday after Sunday, I see the Gospel as it is enacted by these two candles, reminding us to lean on God. For we are not saved by humanly power, but by the grace of the cross through Jesus Christ.

 


Luk 23:26-39 (NRSV):

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

A Subway “Halleluja”

My tired feet dragged me step by step to the shuttle train. Same procedure as ever for a pastor, living and working at two ends of her congregation. A normal New York story of long commutes, short nights and many challenges a large city and ministry brings.

While I swam with the faceless masses of fellow commuters my mind raced like mad. Outwardly calm, words sharp like razor knives echoed in my mind. What a irony while we were celebrating International Day of Peace in New York and all around the world! There are so many things wrong in our world – in every day life! I lamented and lamented in my thoughts while the book case in my hand got increasingly heavier.

As I dragged my way down the grey steps a familiar tune played by a trombone filled the stuffy subway air: Leonard Cohen´s “Halleluja” woke me up from my nightmarish thoughts of one-way-streets and dead ends. The song was like balm on my weary soul. It seemed as if I was told by God that it would be alright in one way or the other sometime.

I had to think of Leonard Cohen´s words when he once was approached by John McKenna in a interview about his famous song “Hallelujah”:

“Finally there’s no conflict between things, finally everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess and that’s what I mean by Hallelujah. That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation. […]

That’s what it’s all about. It says that none of this – you’re not going to be able to work this thing out – you’re not going to be able to set – this realm does not admit to revolution – there’s no solution to this mess. The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah! That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.” (1)

Leonhard Cohen´s song escorted me into the new hectic day in busy New York. Not everything would be fine and lots of things would stay a hurtful mystery to me. But in the mean time I would praise God. In the subway and beyond.


(https://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/rte.html )

Free to love another

Loud pop music greeted us as we entered a small Irish pub in downtown Washington, D. C. Four women were on the seek for some good food and a place to enjoy time with one another. It seemed oddly fitting for us to choose exactly this location as a diverse group of women, who found friendship through a shared passion – the passion to proclaim the commandment to love neighbor and self in a public way as Jesus had asked his disciples.

The doctorate “Public Engagement” at the Wesley Theological Seminar (Washington, D.C.) had made our lives paths cross in an unexpected way. Maybe without Gods providence we would have never met one another. The communities we come from are very different and even if it hurts, to write this, in the United States these “social bubbles” might not interact as eagerly as one might wish.

But God has provided us a beautiful friendship, binding together in love and respect a Korean-American Methodist Minister, a African-American Church of Nazarene Minister, a Latina-American Methodist Minister, and a German Lutheran Pastor. It is this friendship that was formed early on in the course, which gave me the greatest lesson I could ever learn: that we are free to love another. We don’t need to stretch ourselves out of shape in order to love the other person, but if I accept my neighbor in his neighborliness I am able to find myself as a human being God the creator has made. By hearing their story, sharing our lives with one another, crying, celebrating, and just being there for one another. It is such a gift and privilege, because I can be, who I am. A German Lutheran, who carries the burden of the troublesome German past, and tries in her humanly ways to influence the the present and future driven by Gods love.

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It is in Howard Thurman I have found an exceptional theologian and mystic, who was able to put the experience I am making into beautiful words (please note that when he writes about male, I am freely contacting female as well!):

“The religious experience as I have known it seems to swing wide the door, not merely into Life but into lives. I am confident that my own call to the religious vocation cannot be separated from slowly emerging disclosure that my religious experience makes it possible for me to experience myself as a human being and thus keep a very real psychological distance between myself and the hostilities of my environment. Through the years it has driven me more and more to seek to make as a normal part of my relations with men the experiencing of them as human beings. When this happens love has essential materials with which to work. And contrary to the general religious teaching, men would not need to stretch themselves out of shape in order to love. On the contrary, a man comes into possession of himself more completely when he is free to love another.”

(Howard Thurman, The Luminous Darkness, New York 1965, p. 111.)

“Message in a book”

Soft and mild wind helped to ease the hot summer air. I was sitting on our patio listening to the song of cicadas as I opened my newest book purchase: A 40-Day Journey with Howard Thurman. With the school break and business slowing down even in New York it was the perfect time to start a spiritual journey.

There could have not been a better person than Howard Thurman to start with as a guide. Since a few months studying as a German Lutheran at Wesley Theological Seminary for my D. Min. I am increasingly emerged into the complexity of Racism and White Supremacy in the United States. A problem, which I growing up in Germany was not aware in its depth and brutality. Thurman, as I quickly discovered, offers a way to combine faith and social action, religion and politics by giving examples from his own upbringing and situation in a deeply divided south.

As I opened the first page of the "used book in good condition", as the seller had described it, a small handwritten note fell into my lap. This was not a "message in a bottle", but a "message in a book", that was carried to me on the waves of transport through the American Postal Service.

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With awe I read the anonymous penciled down message. The handwriting flowing over the page as if the words were spilled deeply out of a broken heart:

"When I dropped out of college, for weeks I didn't tell my parents. I just would be told I was a failure. I didn't want to disappoint my parents, my grandparents and my extended family. I don't recall calling on God to help me through this dark time. I probably felt I deserved all of it. Feelings and guilt and shame for not trying harder and sticking with it. I had quickly shed my faith after leaving home for college and avoided asking for guidance and help from God. I had better things to do than pray, " The last word was erased. Then my contact to the anonymous writer broke off completely.

My heart immediately burned for this stranger, who had experienced so much troubles. Was he able to make his way into a better and positive life? And more importantly: Was he able to find his way back into Gods loving arms? I would never know.

As our brief journey ended with the last hastily pencilled word, mine would just begin. The writings of Thurman I read up to now are an eye opener to understand the brutal make-up of a country I love since childhood. A country deeper divided by racism and skin color than I ever could imagine in my deepest nightmares. As I go on a 40-Day journey with Thurman to discover faith and love beyond color and race, my prayers will accompany the writer of this message in my book. May God show him the beauty in his broken-made-beautiful life.