A Tale of Two Tour Guides

Both were college educated, Polish men in early middle age. Both were licensed tour guides. Both were animated, but in different ways, when asked about their knowledge spheres. Their missions varied vastly and their personalities were poles apart (forgive the pun), but we cherished what each offered and listened as attentive students.

Jack, our tour guide for Krakow Old Town, was well travelled and spoke excellent English.

Jack, our tour guide for Krakow Old Town, was well travelled and spoke excellent English.

Jack (not his real name) took us around Krakow Old Town. Vibrant and witty, he wove fables into the history of Krakow, Poland’s former capital during the Joint Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania. Jack regaled us with tales of King Krak and his daughter (who refused to marry a German prince), King Sigismund’s alchemy and Commander Kazimierz Pulaski’s victorious defence against the Russian army at Jasna Gora in 1769 (Kazimierz subsequently led a cavalry brigade for General George Washington and died heroically in the American War of Independence and was buried in Savannah, Georgia).

We sat with Jack under the twin towers of St Mary’s Church as the Trumpeter of Krakow played Hejnał Mariacki (which ends abruptly as a Mongol arrow pierces his throat), and admired portraits of the Polish Nobel Laureates Marie Curie and Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius Sienkiewicz (that’s just one person, a writer).

In the top corner room King Sigismund set the palace on fire, experimenting with chemicals after midnight.

In the top corner room King Sigismund set the palace on fire, experimenting with chemicals after midnight.

In Krakow, Poland’s capital for 550 years beginning in 1038, there are three places you must see: the Old Town -once a walled city replete with grand old establishments and narrow cobbled streets — where we met Jack, the famous salt mines dating from 1200 AD (one hour east of Krakow in Wieliczka) and, one hour west of Krakow, the infamous Nazi killing camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Marek conducted this grim tour.

Remains of Birkenau, surrounded by electric barbed wire fences, the largest Death Camp of the Third Reich.

Remains of Birkenau, surrounded by electric barbed wire fences, the largest Death Camp of the Third Reich.

Where Jack had been endearing and flippant with Polish folklore Marek was sombre, recounting a sordid past which we must not forget. Where Jack’s undeniable enthusiasm had carried the crowd, Marek’s measured tones and even responses recounted carefully documented details of the Third Reich’s masterplan to exterminate the Jewish race. Where Jack saw enterprise and possibility Marek cited solid fact.

In the holocaust the Jews lost everything. Marek told us how they were stripped of freedom, of possessions, of place, of identity, of hope and of life. His mission was single-minded ensuring that the world does not forget, yet each year it grows harder as distance increases between the atrocities of the past and the carefree lives of the new generation.

At Auschwitz (and every death camp): each internee was robbed of identity, issued uniform striped pyjamas in place of all clothes and belongings, heads shaved (men and women), called by number instead of a name.

At Auschwitz (and every death camp): each internee was robbed of identity, issued uniform striped pyjamas in place of all clothes and belongings, heads shaved (men and women), called by number instead of a name.

Identically gaunt faces hopelessly stare out of the rotten corridors of each Auschwitz block. Upon arrival at Auschwitz life expectancy was eight weeks. Starvation, diarrhea, typhoid, merciless beatings, execution by firing squad, self immolation on electric fences and the poison gas zyklon B racked up the numbers of murdered inmates at the deadliest of all Nazi camps. With numbed yet sincere feeling and deepest respect Marek invited us to remember the dead whose only crime was to live during the time of the Third Reich. Hitler’s followers were masters at ruling through fear.

In contrast Jack wondered aloud about the heroes and heroines of Polish history, their achievements and lives, imagining how they felt and thought. His tour was punctuated with wit and self promotion. I felt like signing up for his evening gig: ‘vampires and vodka.’ In his own life quest Jack employed his tour guide lifestyle to travel during the offseason — last year it was one month in India.

Krakow Palace Cathedral seen from the Palace Garden.

Krakow Palace Cathedral seen from the Palace Garden.

The charm of Krakow reverberates from the tourist trodden city streets, and Jack’s wit and charm. Yet behind this facade of vivacity and celebration lurks the reality of evil, imprisonment and fear in the dastardly deeds of those who surrendered themselves to self above all else.

Hitler planned the murder of all 11 million European Jews and the cowardly cooperated. Over six million were exterminated, gassed in concrete chambers, their corpses were burned to cinders and their bones ground into dust. The perpetrators planted avenues of Poplar trees around the concentration camps to hide their misdeeds using their victims as slave labor. The Holocaust remains a stumbling block for faith in Judaism. My mother was the daughter of a Jewess.

‘~ ~ the difference between Christians and Jews was that for Christians everything that comes from God is good and everything evil bears the mark of man; the Jews, however, press their search further and more blasphemously, crediting God with evil as well as absolution. The first act of Abraham, the first Jew-his readiness to sacrifice his son-was an accusation against God and his injustice. After that Moses shattered the tables of the Law, in anger not only with his people but with the God of his people. The midrash contains a troubling legend along these same lines. Cain says to God: ``Why did you make me commit this crime? Why did it have to be me? You could have prevented it, but you didn't. Why not?'' (Elie Weisel, The Gates of the Forest, 1966, 94-95.)

Always in life both aspects remain. The young see life as grand and ambitious, the old allow jaded feelings and broken promises to seal their fate. The young lust after adventure and innovation, the old focus unwaveringly on survival in the here and now. The young want to fulfill ambition, the old ensure they do not lose what they have worked hard to attain.

Yet we can be old and enthusiastic or young and and tied down with dread. It is a daily choice that becomes harder with the years but easier with practice.

The perspectives of both tour guides, Marek and Jack, help instruct us on life’s path. Like Marek we must never ignore the reality of evil, but we remember so that we might not surrender to evil in any form, whether the evil of simple selfishness or the terror of gross injustice.

Like Jack we find enjoyment in life and see possibility surrounding us. We are perpetual students embracing variety and approach life as learners in every phase of being.

And above all we hold fast to the faith that readjusts in a world of change. As we reflect on society and being and life and death, as we contemplate injustice and anger and greed, as we wonder at the heavens and what lies beyond the gates of this life, do we carry faith with us or does our faith perish in the dust? Do we allow our limitations to define our boundaries or do we allow God to to lead us, each step, each day?

Rain in Poland

The rain sprinkled lightly in Lodz as we drove around the city en route to Warsaw. The paltry precipitation had little to do with what would happen next. Where on Earth is Lodz you may ask and why were you there? First a lesson in pronunciation. Polish is famously difficult to speak, second only to Welsh (I lived there four years) among romanized languages. For instance there are two different ways of pronouncing the letter L, and there are four types of Z. Lodz is pronounced Wooj. A word can display five or more consonants in a row, and then have four vowels punctuated with a solo non vowel. For example have a go at saying this word: Przybyszewskiego - it’s a street name in Lodz (remember, that's Wooj).

Restored 19th Century City Street in Lodz

Restored 19th Century City Street in Lodz

Visiting Lodz was a trip back in history, tracing Mark’s ancestry through his mother’s maternal grandmother. She was born in Dobrzyn nad Wisla (such easy Polish words), married a man from Warsaw, and emigrated to England where she opened a chain of clothing stores. Lodz (do you remember how to pronounce it?), situated 100 miles south of Dobrzyn and 100 miles west of Warsaw (said ‘Vatsava’ in Poland), became a hub of European textile manufacturing after 1820, growing from 250 citizens in 1800 to 250,000 in 1900, and 538,600 inhabitants by the time my maternal great grandmother began her clothing business in London. As a Polish immigrant making her fortune in London, the capital of the western world, from where did she most likely import her fabric? You guessed it … Lodz.

Tenements for factory workers: a Textile Factory, with a 100ft chimney stack,lay at the back of this courtyard.

Tenements for factory workers: a Textile Factory, with a 100ft chimney stack,lay at the back of this courtyard.

Thus Dobrzyn nad Wisla, Warsaw and Lodz formed a triangle of first stops on the Poland leg of our journey. There is one other thing you need to know about Lodz: it is the wild west of city driving - a bit like cities in China. You know about unlimited speeds on the German Autobahn — Lodz residents seem to think it applies to their city streets as well.

Our wagon, packed with four adults and enough luggage each for a three week’s vacation was quietly proceeding in the Lodz late morning rush hour. The light turned green and I steered left under an overpass across a second green light, when a small black mass tore across our path, right to left. My brother shouted, I slammed on the brakes, tires squealed, our white wagon froze, and then … a sickening thud, metal on metal, shattering glass, the frenetic skidding black object spun 180 degrees and slid to a halt. Ashen pale, from behind a smashed windshield, the black Polo driver and boyfriend emerged unscathed. Stunned, I stepped out, surveyed the damage, flagged down the semi driver behind me asking if he could be a witness — he apologised pointing to his load of vehicles for delivery, and wondered at the ramifications.

Using broken English, hand signals and a listening posture I understood that the young lady driver was accepting full responsibility — she had run a red light and was in shock, the color had not returned to her jaundiced face. Her boyfriend took command of the situation, had called the police and was now speaking Polish to someone else; Andrea was on the phone to the rental company, and then the credit card company. A kerbside pedestrian, wearing a pale blue zipped jacket, with limited English said he saw and she caused it. Dazed, yet appreciating the help, we waited for the police to arrive.

LodzblackPolo.jpg

Looking for the police four other emergency vehicles on other missions passed by, several irate motorists honked, a friendly opportunistic tow truck driver sought to help, and we remained a spectacle for hundreds of tram passengers. Eventually the police turned up, questioned both drivers, strictly instructed us to sit in our vehicles while they sat in theirs, asked for various documents one by one and told us all — drivers and passengers — to complete various forms. Names, addresses (US and UK), driver’s licenses, insurance, vehicle registrations, passports, and names of parents even if deceased. It took a long time for them to run all this information through their databases, reconstruct our genealogies, and verify our identities.

An eternal ninety minutes ticked by, passportless and stripped of all documents, confined to our cabin, anxiously on hold with two different phone conversations (credit card - very polite and had Avis Germany authorized Poland for the tow truck and replacement vehicle and when, if ever, would they arrive?), were we in peril of punitive measures from the Polish police due to the undiplomatic methods of Trump in Europe and the unpopularity of Britain in Europe with Brexit? Then, through the rain spattered driver’s side window, magically the lady officer handed back our documents. We were free! Almost instantly we heard skidding tires and a double crunch of metal on metal on the other side of the street as the next victims of Lodz driving sealed their fate: one truck and two vehicles, upstaging our incident. But for the police officers present we would have burst into laughter!

Now the passing tram passengers had even more to talk about.

Same intersection, more motor accident victims; fortunately, no serious injuries.

Same intersection, more motor accident victims; fortunately, no serious injuries.

The friendly, opportunistic tow truck driver — he would both tow and repair any damaged vehicles - visited the second accident also, but no luck. And a second eternity passed for us milling around our vehicle, waiting for our tow truck that never arrived. In the end we took matters into our own hands, Polish-style, drove our well-photographed, damaged rental to the nearest Avis dealer, presented our case number and politely demanded a replacement vehicle. After our six hour detour we were back on the road in fifteen minutes.

We drove on to Warsaw, in the rain.

Wet evening after we arrived in Warsaw — Mark, Andrea, Chris and Sarah, by the Vistula (Wiswa) River.

Wet evening after we arrived in Warsaw — Mark, Andrea, Chris and Sarah, by the Vistula (Wiswa) River.

Expressive Germany

The high energy of Hamburg city hits us the moment the plane touches down at the airport. These people are confident and vital. The country isn’t looking to the past as it greets an unknown yet welcome future.

Hamburg Symphony Hall on the River Elbe.

Hamburg Symphony Hall on the River Elbe.

Hamburg and its neighbor Lubeck were at the center of the Hanseatic League, a federation of commercial cities that ushered in prosperity for four hundred years. The League encompassed the Baltic and beyond, and even supported an impressive military to suppress piracy, enforce free trade (Lubeck, Danzig, Riga, Visby, S Sweden, London, Bruges and Hamburg were key towns in the Hanseatic League), and counter greedy monarchs (they helped defeat the King of Denmark in 1431).

Sunset over Visby, Gotlund, a key Baltic trading center in the Hanseatic League

Sunset over Visby, Gotlund, a key Baltic trading center in the Hanseatic League

Unlike wealthy Swedish towns that have changed their focus from trade to social equality, Hamburg continues to thrives from its key location and magnetism for entrepreneurs and immigrants alike. As soon as we set foot in Hamburg, jumping aboard the rapid train from airport to city, we felt the expressiveness of thirty-something Germans freely interacting with one another, despite being strangers.

At Central Station the surge of humanity is in full force, folks from thirteen to seventy-five, bronze tanned white, blue black, milk coffee colored, yellow skinned, pale white and pink skinned, chocolate brown, wearing all styles of dress, marching purposefully to their destination, disregarding slow moving and uncertain tourists like us.

Google maps navigates us away from the station, across busy streets, and into the store-front lined neighborhood where we will stay the next four nights. Police patrol the square at its center in groups of four — we ask one for directions and he answers curtly as if we are dumb — after following his directions we unlock three sets of security doors and climb three stories into an old apartment with 12 foot ceilings and a fifty foot long corridor connecting its five rooms. — such a contrast to our tiny Visby home where we had to crouch in the attic bedroom.

Kitchen with 12ft ceilings in Hamburg

Kitchen with 12ft ceilings in Hamburg

Our soft eyed host is caring, well intentioned, sincere and very helpful. He’s also into black leather boots and ropes, not unusual in Hamburg. At evening in the square outside pimps prowl and three young women wait for offers of cash for sex. Almost everyone of the one hundred men scattered, in groups of three and four, about the plaza sports a chilled beer bottle and shares a cigarette - sometimes with complete strangers. The police check young immigrant men for legitimate German identity cards, and watch intently for illegal drugs. This pool of humanity is dynamic, changing each hour with different actors every day. The scriptless actors of our lost community appear on the stage perhaps for an hour, perhaps for a month and then disappear, replaced by another actor in an almost identical role. Music and voices waft up to our apartment through the night; the square is never noiseless.

Random folks in Hansaplatz where we stayed

Random folks in Hansaplatz where we stayed

Yet the gross crime of Hansaplatz is not that young men are wasting away their lives, nor that young women are entering the sex trade. The gross crime is that the church is absent. Ministry opportunity is evident literally at every corner, but visiting Christians like us hide behind three sets of locked doors and resident Believers avoid dens of vice like the plague. And so the sun sets on a Church that is daily choosing irrelevance.

Evening Mass in Hamburg - antique, ornate and nominal.

Evening Mass in Hamburg - antique, ornate and nominal.

What if, instead of taking pride in hushed gatherings in holy places, we the Church energetically invested in expressive cities like Hamburg ? What if, instead of caring to be comfortable with family and friends, we befriended transient communities in the same way that wandering strangers welcome one another? What if, instead of seeking financial security, we made it our mission to host immigrants like Hamburg hosts passers-by? What if we made space for each person as if we were welcoming Jesus for the first time — would heaven be pleased no matter what became of the Church on earth?

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat alls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Forward in Time, Backward in Time

The Nordic nations are Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Greenland and Norway. What links them? Viking blood. (Genetically, there is a SNP for Viking descent.)

What have the Nordic domains to do with California and Orchard Valley? The Vikings didn’t get this far did they?

Like California, the Nordic countries are progressive. Within America California leads the curve in culture, technology and socially. Everyone knows about Silicon Valley Tech which the US and world are adopting. California’s social mix is 51% non-white and the rest of the US is slowly playing catch up. As to culture Facebook, YouTube and Hollywood are highly influential, along with Tesla and blue jeans - born in the Bay.

new buildings, old port

new buildings, old port

Yet the culture of North America, California included, is rooted more in Europe than any other region and the social policies of California mirror changes in Northern Europe, the Nordic nations in particular. To take a minor example, since March 2002 plastic bags were taxed in Europe leading to a 90% reduction. Other Scandinavian innovations include a social safety net, accepting immigrants, a decent minimum wage and generous maternity (and paternity) leave are features famed in Nordic nations. High taxation pays for these privileges, just as California (at 13.3%) levies the highest taxes of any American state.

There are other unique influences on California - current central American and Asian immigration, past Spanish settlements along El Camino Real — but looking backwards we find much California history stems from Europe as wagon trains of white settlers brought their ways out West, and looking forwards we see that social and cultural policy changes in California come from Nordic countries. Therefore the way that Nordic nations are today tells us something about how California will be tomorrow. That future may take twenty years, but gradually it arrives. Viking blood may not be in our veins, but Nordic policies are in our society.

The traffic is two way. California influences the world through technology and California mirrors northern Europe in social change. And for the first time social change and technological change are being fused through global social networking. This happened in the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and is happening in the popularization of competing political futures, environmentalists and nationalists.

Mass transit may elude California but cultural change does not

Mass transit may elude California but cultural change does not

Looking forward to Viking lands what do we see? A new class of disenfranchised — the economic immigrants. We will talk about this in another blog. We also witness the wholesale submersion of the Church in a tsunami of postmodern culture. This deluge is inevitable. It began in Northern Europe with the rantings of Nietzsche and the refinements of Heidegger in the mid twentieth century. Nietzsche and Heidegger were not alone in this philosophical pilgrimage, but as key movers their nihilistic thinking now molds the future of the world. Even though both desired a positive departure from traditional ways with Nietzsche’s Superman and Heidegger’s reconstruction, neither could attain this outside of the Gospel of Christ. Both Nietzsche and Heidegger recognized and heralded the social changes that were coming, but neither could see how to make the Church relevant to the coming era - the now in which we live.

So we are left with a conundrum: how do we retranslate the Good News for postmodern society without losing the essence of what it means to follow Christ? The old is a memorial to the past, irrelevant to the now that postmodern people experience.

Renovated Swedish Church in VIsby - a tourist attraction but spiritually dead

Renovated Swedish Church in VIsby - a tourist attraction but spiritually dead

3rd Class

Shoved to the narrow, tail section of the aircraft amongst the folk who never make eye contact, who keep their electronic devices going during take-off, and only speak when spoken to – I feel a unity with them, because the system has let me down, just like their lives molded by a system that has let them down. Here is what happened in cultured Northern Europe, where civility is keeping your voice low and your emotions in check, where not fussing is a virtue and no-one expects anything of anyone except the government.

We had booked and paid for two flights, the first from Visby to Stockholm and the second from Stockholm to Hamburg. Our accommodation in Hamburg was prepaid, beginning Friday night. We had a big travel day ahead of us, checking out of our quaint medieval earth tone Airbnb Friday morning, taking a final bike tour of the old walled town, climbing a five hundred year old tower on the town ramparts, admiring the botanic gardens at a leisurely stroll, returning our rental bikes by midday, picnicking in the park, an afternoon taxi to the airport, and then aboard the first leg of our back to back flights (since there is no direct flight from Visby to Hamburg). We informed the check in agents that our connecting flight departed one hour after landing in Stockholm, that we had baggage to check, and that we were concerned about making the connection. They assured us there would be adequate time, assigned priority to our check in bag (it was no 6 coming down the chute at Stockholm baggage claim), and no problem, they would notify the Hamburg flight to keep the check desk open for us.

boarding at Visby.jpg

The stewardess on the first flight was similarly reassuring, the flight was on time, the two terminals were only a few hundred meters apart, we would make our connection. At Stockholm airport we deplaned rapidly, found a luggage cart, whisked our bag off the turntable as soon as it hit, and marched at full speed through Sky City to terminal five – international departures. Asking where to find our check in desk we were directed, by a bored clerk, to the huge display board halfway down the spacious departure hall. It directed us to counters 41-44. We strode fifty yards but found no-one there, empty lines, vacant desks. Not a soul in sight at 41-44. Was the information accurate? Another attendant, who was rearranging check-in lane markers twenty yards away pointed us to the travel advice desk. It was now 47 minutes to departure.

We took a number – ticket 153 – and stood in line, arms folded, awaiting our turn. ‘153’ flashed on the screen and we presented our case to the short haired blond travel advisor, we needed access to our flight but there was no-one there to help at counters 41-44. He shook his angular head: “I am sorry but the check-in counter is closed. It closes one hour before the flight.” One hour before? We explained the reassurances that we had been given at Visby airport. “To say is one thing, to do it is quite another. They are different airlines” he said in sharp English, consulting his screen. “They do not talk to each other. You should have booked the same airline. It is your responsibility to be at the check-in on time.” Flabbergasted, having tried our very best to comply with every procedure, “What can we do?” we murmured. “Let me see,” as he tapped more computer keys. “You say you are going to Hamburg. I am sorry there are no more flights for today.” “But … “ we stammered. “You have lost your tickets, you will have to buy new ones. Go to the travel office downstairs. There you can book a new flight for tomorrow.” Visions of weary travelers curled up on unyielding, metal framed airport lounge seats through the dark hours of the night flashed across our minds. Dollar signs for new tickets – how many hundred a piece? Airport police clearing out the airport at midnight like they do at the central train station, forcing us onto the streets, exhausted, disheveled, dirty and hungry, in a city where hotels cost $400 per night and cheap dinners $100 per person. There were still 40 minutes until the flight left but it was a lost cause, the travel advisor thrust his elbows on the counter, shoulders hunkered forward for a football or rugby play, he would not be moved. Disheartened we wandered away from the travel advice desk, his gaze on our backs, in the direction of the travel office.

On our right, within arm’s length of the tubular steel luggage cart, stood the security gate, blue lights illuminating personnel scanners, trays and beltways for hand luggage and carry-ons, security cameras pointing downwards prominently mounted on poles and walls, a single line of a dozen passengers queuing for inspection, as if waiting in line for entry into heaven. “Quick, let’s go through security!“ exclaimed Andrea with a determined look, parking the luggage cart, whisking out her mobile and pulling up the boarding pass, orange backpack on her shoulders and green carryon and purse strung across her body. Scanning the QR code into the reader in front of the gate, the translucent green barrier momentarily paused and then opened for her. When your wife displays such certainty you dare not question, even if all of airport security is monitoring you and matching your face with known terrorists. Hesitatingly, weighed down with seventy pounds of luggage, I pulled out my phone and held it before the scanner. Magically I also was let through, carrying two back packs and a piece of purple hand luggage. Was this a mistake, would we be arrested by airport police, was the travel advisor about to stride over and find us out? 35 minutes to boarding, but we were into the secure zone – and no-one had stopped us!  

What next? I stared questioningly at Andrea. My backpack felt five feet tall, I had steel nail clippers and a bottle of sunscreen in my toiletry kit, bags of flour, oats, ground coffee, sugar and assorted snacks packed alongside my hiking boots, and various vials of contact lens solution, shampoo and facial cleanser that Andrea needed. How would my bag get through security? Bewildered I stood in line as Andrea grabbed numerous items from our big back pack, then crushed it down to medium size, as clothes and liquids and groceries were redistributed into empty smaller bags. We bundled all these items into used white trays no questions asked, laptops in one, belts, phones and pocket change in another, liquids and creams of all sizes into a third, some food items in a fourth and our backpacks and other travel bags each on their own. It all happened so quickly. Our two backpacks edged along the rubber beltway and barely fit into the scanner, a beep sounded as I walked through the security gate, a guard indicated for me to stand to one side as my body was whisked with a wand. My hands were tested for traces of powder – coffee grounds, flour, baking powder? Nothing. I breathed one sigh of relief.

Then my backpack was pulled from the conveyor belt by a uniformed security guard. He gazed at me questioningly. “Is this yours?” “ Yes, mine,” I confessed. “Will you open it for me?” “Why, of course.” Any hesitation and we would be doomed, hauled in for interrogation, turned back onto the streets of Stockholm, stuck with no inexpensive means of progress and in for a costly, energy depleting unplanned stopover. I mentally calculated the value of my belongings in the backpack. Less than the cost of another flight. If worse came to worse I could surrender the whole lot and buy some new underwear in Germany. 28 minutes before the plane took off.

I unclipped the brittle plastic backpack latches and pulled open the black drawstring, revealing its contents to the dark blue uniformed officer. Out came a sky blue plastic container of muesli, a sack of sugar (a slight trickle of grains spilling out of one corner), two boxes of teabags (Earl Grey and Indian Chai), a cannister of baking powder and a bag of whole meal flour (when staying in Airbnb’s Andrea likes to bake – and I like it too – but why, oh why had we carried all this with us?) The bemused official asked “Any more food?” Noticing him smirk rather than glower, I felt reassured. Good thing we had finished up our jars of Norwegian marmalade and Swedish honey at breakfast that morning.

Apologetically I replied: “Yes, I have some oatmeal down here and Swedish flatbread, a can of mackerel  and …” He waved away my exposition and returned the backpack to the scanner, minus the extracted foods. I retrieved my cell phone and belt from a generic plastic tray, slid the laptops into the smaller backpack with a pair of beige shorts that had tumbled out in the excitement, and my spirits rose as he hefted the rescanned backpack my way. Were we really through security?

23 minutes to departure and Andrea had gone ahead to gate 12, not far from where I stood lifting the back pack over my shoulders and cinching it around my waist. I strode over to gate 12 where a throng of expectant passengers milled.

Luggage that had made it through security needed reorganizing to make it onto the plane and into the overhead bins. We sat on a circular lounge seat beneath a staircase, taking clothing out of one bag and stuffing it into another, under the gaze of curious fellow passengers, chorizo flavored chips nestled in with socks, and assorted almonds, peanuts and cashews snug with rolled T shirts, until we were sure that every bag would fit in the overhead bins, just hoping the airline staff would not question the number and size of the six items we were now carrying instead of the small allowance of four. We anxiously stood in line as the passengers in front of us scanned their passes and proceeded through the gate. 17 minutes to departure time.

victorious at Stockholm.jpg

For the second time our QR codes scanned successfully, I noticed seat numbers 29C and 30D light up with each code as I avoided eye contact with the airline staff, no-one questioned our legitimacy, we entered the tunnel to the awaiting aircraft door, huge grins spreading across our faces. “Well done!” I exclaimed to Andrea. We stepped onto the aircraft, stowed our bags in the crowded bins, took our seats alongside the fellow travelers at the rear of the plane, and began to giggle. The aircraft doors closed and happily we taxied away from the gate. Hamburg here we come! We had no objection to flying third class.

Enterprising Norway

In contrast to calm Swedes, Norwegians are aggressive!

intotheunknown@Tafyjord.jpg

I suppose if you were raised in the land of fjords where inhabitable land was little, forbidding weather was frequent and opportunity and light were limited, you might become more thrusting than most. Norway’s success is due to an enterprising spirit born of adversity that makes it one of the richest nations per capita in the world ($82K nominal GDP, vs $62K for USA).

Yet few Norwegians live in huge houses or drive fancy Ferraris or own luxury yachts. What do the Norwegians do with all their money? The Norwegian government collects 42% of GDP in taxation compared to 24% in the USA, and everyone’s taxes are public knowledge. Norway’s long tradition is each person contributes as much as possible for the common good, especially for schools. Thus Norway survived trepidations in the past and now affords generous social programs including free higher education. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is valued at $200,000 per citizen and everywhere in Norway you see public projects with the widening of roads, technology upgrades and building improvements.

Gule Sider from Oslo Opera House

Gule Sider from Oslo Opera House

Yet despite this enormous wealth and excellent national stewardship Norway struggles spiritually. There are more dead churches - relics of a bygone era - than live ones. This has not always been the case. In the past Norway has sent out more missionaries per capita than any other country in the world! But in our postmodern era the church struggles to remain relevant to the culture.

The spiritual challenge of postmodernity is global,, particularly evidenced in advanced democracies. This spiritual challenge is to recover the relevance of the Christian faith for postmodern people. It is a challenge we face daily in Silicon Valley, and we have been given a unique opportunity to embrace the challenge on behalf of the global church.

Cashless and Landless

Apartment overlooking Gota River.

Apartment overlooking Gota River.


Before arriving we read that Sweden is an almost cashless society, but since we needed to ride the bus into the city we surrendered our debit card to an ATM to purchase Swedish Kroner. Surprisingly our cash was useless on the bus, so we downloaded the bus pass app, paying for our tickets online with credit. Cash can be used to buy groceries and gas, but credit is preferred.

In addition to becoming a cashless nation, many Swedes are also landless. Traditionally an agricultural, marine and trading nation, few harvest the land or sea anymore. In the two big cities (Stockholm and Gothenburg’s combined population is 1.5m, 15% of the nation) most live in apartments. Suburbs are sparse, and even there most single family homes are small, steep roofed and land deprived. They are also heat efficient and easy to maintain.

Being cashless and landless in Sweden sounds like a personal economic disaster, yet Sweden invented social security and the State takes care of its citizens, so being cashless and landless does not bother most Swedes. Why shoulder the cost of heating and maintaining large indoor spaces in a cold climate? Why burden yourself with yard work when the land is vast and unpopulated (Sweden is larger than California with a quarter of the population)? Why worry about health insurance and retirement planning when the government provides for you?

In America we fear that the welfare state will encourage laziness and indolence (only 1% of Swedes work more than 50 hours per week), yet Swedes are highly productive and they care for the disenfranchised (Sweden accepted more Syrian refugees per capita than any other nation). 

Being cashless and landless may sound unchristian because it is contrary to the American ideal of self sufficiency. Yet which economic model is more like heaven?

Calm Scandinavia

Sweden is both the largest and most populous country in Scandinavia. In conversation the Swedes stare directly at you, holding your gaze for longer than is usually comfortable. You discern irises tinged with green, brown or blue. Calm eyes watching your face intently for nonverbal signals, like God watches over us, calmly evaluating the course that our choices take. This Swedish calm is evidenced in quiet voices that mouth short phrases - no wasted words, ample personal space and queueing patiently whenever there are more than two people waiting for something.

Hillsong United, Goteborg, Sunday Worship

Hillsong United, Goteborg, Sunday Worship

Sunday morning worship at Hillsong, a stark contrast to Scandinavian solemnity, lively yet also calm, enthusiastic and affirming, plenty of smiles with hands raised high. Would a Hillsong style service work at Orchard Valley? I don’t think so. It is contemporary, like Vineyard thirty years ago, and appeals to a significant population demographic with windowless, black walled rooms, colorful stroboscopic lighting and mist effects. But it has a limited shelf life, perhaps twenty years, until the next worship fashion hits, and the children of the Hillsong generation prefer another style.

Hillsong Gothenburg is housed in a nondescript two story office building. Across the narrow street is a traditional Lutheran church, lengthy worn oak pews, off white cement columns, several stained glass windows, a red carpeted brass kneeling rail for communion and an impressive, custom pipe organ. Hymns only are unenthusiastically sung, interspersed with prayers, two readings and a scripted sermon. This dated model of worship has greater longevity but less appeal than Hillsong, and so most traditional churches in Gothenburg lie empty, perhaps a handful of elderly worshippers each Sunday and an underfunded church building restoration fund. These churches are closing by the score because young folk find them irrelevant.

The conundrum that faces Swedish churches confronts Orchard Valley also. How do we ensure longevity but also attain relevance - in both content and style?

from UNREALITY to NEW REALITY

In the frantic twenty four hours before take-off, and especially in the last two on the road — in a late model black crossover between Palo Alto and Oakland Airport — our reality changes from: ‘there’s too much to do before we leave’ to: ‘I can’t believe we are traveling to another world.’ “Too much to do” included house cleaning, emptying the fridge, arranging house sitting and job sitting, more emails answered and deleted than you’ve ever processed before in one day, adjusting finances, scheduling meetings, signing documents, and emailing confirmations. The “another world” is Northern Europe. Relaxing in the departure lounge, post the terrors of bag check-in and removing half your clothes in security (jacket, belt, shoes), relief and calm wash over me. The airport hums as focused passengers pull all sizes of carry-ons, cell phone conversations burble, public address announcements intercept, questioners arrive at the check-in gate and waiting passengers sit with blank stares. You find yourself sitting beside your lover, a mellow feeling in your stomach as a smile spreads across your face. Yes, I am going somewhere special with the one I love.

Oakland Airport

Oakland Airport

Jesus, our lover, goes with us. it doesn’t have to be a familiar culture — Jesus is present in the airport terminal, flies with us as at 39,000 ft, watches us negotiate our rental vehicle, and drives with us along unfamiliar, meadow-lined roads through the Swedish countryside. Jesus is with you in the kitchen, in the morning commute, beside the tennis court and waiting for you in heaven. Every day with Jesus is special.

Welcome to Spiritual Reflections from European Cities!

 
 

We have several flowering plants at this time of year, both inside and out, including roses, agapanthus, hydrangea, geranium and Easter Lilies (yes, that’s right, they decided to bloom on Ascension Day). Before we departed, the orchids needed TLC.

Once in a while, an exciting opportunity comes along and my (Mark’s) initial response is ’Wow, let’s go for it!’ Andrea is more cautious. She thinks, ‘Can we really do this?’

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This exciting opportunity began last year, when we discovered that Andrea had accumulated enough academic leave for a sabbatical. We decided on Summer 2019 to enjoy that special trip. By Fall 2018 we had booked our tickets to fly to Stockholm for a conference in Goteborg, and subsequently tour 11 European cities.