Lynnell’s birthday post

Thanks for the birthday wishes. We’re in the last few months of this once-in-a-life-time-year-long traveling sabbatical trip. John had to return to the U.S. for a funeral. So I’m spending my 60th birthday on my own in a campground in Munich, Germany, yet thanks to email, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, I’m feeling lots of love and don’t feel lonely.

I’m sitting in the shade at our camp site, listening to the birds sing, with a cold beer in the cooler and a good wifi connection. I continue to be amazed that we can live this well and comfortably for the princely sum of between $20–$30 a night.


This is our 4th trip camping in Europe. Camping is how lots of people travel here, so campgrounds are everywhere and they’re more like outdoor hotels than roughing it. Campgrounds come with clean bathhouses, hot showers; big communal sinks where you can wash dishes; a little café, bar or market where you can buy fresh bread and croissants. (But no picnic tables, so you have to bring your own tables and chairs. It’s a little weird, given that European campgrounds seem to have everything else.)\

Campgrounds are often located in cities too. So if you have three or more weeks to travel and can rent a vehicle, camping is such a relaxing and affordable able way to move around Europe. On our first three trips, we brought our tent and gear from home and rented a regular van (when we were traveling with three kids) and just a regular Toyota Corolla type car when it was just John and myself.

It worked great. Yes, we looked like a minor-league hockey team dragging duffles of gear through the airports. But once we loaded them all in our rental car at the airport, we were set to go.]

But on this last trip, we bought a camper van because we were going to be gone for a year and camping in cold weather. It was no small investment, but it’s worked out so well, we’ve decided to keep it, store it outside of London and use it on future trips, especially since our son, Carter, now lives in London with his wife. Retirement is still some years off, but at age 60, it beckons!\

At any rate, some people have a cabin on the lake. We will now have a camper van on the other side of the Atlantic.

Our van has a bike rack and we bought two bicycles. So we usually park the van in the campground and then use our bikes to get around. This has been especially great in Munich, which is like the Minneapolis of Europe in that it’s relatively flat; there’s a huge system of designated bike paths; the beautiful, clean, fast-running Isar River runs through the heart of the city and there’s theaters, concerts, parks and really great beer everywhere you look.

I mean, it’s a just a flat-out fantastic place. If you haven’t been to Munich yet, come! Here’s the cute campground restaurant overlooking the river. #LivingLarge.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 2.58.45 PM (1)

Munich was also the birthplace and the central headquarters of the Nazi party. A couple of days ago, I visited one of the city’s newest museums, the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism. Yeah I know. Maybe it sounds better in the original German. Anyhow, it’s a long, ponderous name for a courageous, thoughtful place that was built on the very site of the first Nazi party headquarters.

“Again and again, a democratic society faces challenges that demand we take a stand and show moral courage, “ says the centre’s guide in its opening sentence. “Right-wing radicalism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism call for a clear ‘no’ from a vast and often-silent majority”

As an American living in the Age of Trump, this immediately got my attention.

”….Munich was tied to and entangled with National Socialism more than any other city,” the guide goes on, noting that the Dachau concentration camp–the first model of Nazi terror and its ‘school of violence’—was organized out of Munich in 1933; the 1938 “Munich Agreement” annexing Czechoslovakia was signed here; the terrible ‘Kristallnacht’ pogrom was first announced from Munich’s city hall on November 9th 1938.

“Munich citizens as well as Munich authorities bore a decisive share of responsibility for the emergence and spread of radical, right-wing ideology.” reads the guide. So in addition to commemorating what happened here, the question the center asks is, why of all places was Munich the fertile ground for the Nazis ideology and program? What were the social forces, mindsets and habits that allowed so many people to either actively embrace such hatred or pretend it wasn’t happening?

This is really a gutsy question because most common responses from a people or culture that commit an atrocity is to first deny it happened; then to minimize it; and then maybe, after a long time, to build a memorial to the victims, which can promote empathy with victims while also strangely letting the perpetrators off the hook.

I mean, can you imagine the citizens of South Carolina or Texas or Minnesota or really anywhere in the U.S. building a center that studied how its people or culture bore a decisive share of responsibility for the spread of ideology and beliefs (especially right-wing beliefs) that ended in human rights abuses….like, say, police being able to kill black people with no consequences?  Or police never really investigating black-on-black murders in places like Baltimore or Chicago?  Will there ever be a Chicago Documentation Center Center For The Study of Ghettoside? Or mass imprisonment? Or Jim Crow? Or the destruction of native people?

No, because that would strike pretty close to home…i.e. to the people who still hold the power, which is why most cities wouldn’t touch that kind of subject with a ten-foot pole.

So hats off to Munich for being willing to go there and especially the group of citizens who spent 25 long years trying to get this center built. It’s a fascinating exhibit. If you’re in Munich, go see this place.

I found the parallels to what happened in Munich and what’s happening in Trump’s America to be disturbing: how right-wing violence was tolerated and ignored; (because it wasn’t seen as scary as left-wing violence); how the courts system contributed to this with its leniency towards Nazism, especially during its key early days before Hitler seized power; how some extremely wealthy people financially quietly underwrote Hitler; how mainstream German conservatives felt they could work with Hitler to achieve shared goals and somehow control his worst tendencies and finally how Hitler used propaganda so effectively to frame his narrative and to tap into bigotry and nationalism.

No, I don’t think we’re on the immediate verge of the Third Reich in America. But damn, there ARE disquieting parallels.


So one one side, Munich is a cautionary tale about what happens when democracy fails, which it did in Munich and Germany in the 1930s. And on the other side, today, Munich is an inspiring tale on how a society can rebuild and remake itself in really healthy ways after the unimaginable happens.

One thing that’s clear after this year of travel is that life is so full of paradox. People are awful. People are wonderful. Horrible, horrible shit happens. So does resurrection.

One last thing…I say this on every birthday, but it’s true. On June 26th, 1983, on my Golden Birthday, i.e. on the day I turned 26 years old—I met my wonderful husband, John Bellaimey. Thirty-four years later, he is still the gift who keeps on giving and the best present ever.  Here he is, after landing in his hometown of Detroit two days ago:


Thanks for all the birthday wishes! We’ll be back in Minneapolis in mid-August. Love to all of you!!!!


The man who couldn’t go with the flow

Luther Socks: Here I stand.  I can do no otherEven though he probably didn’t say exactly that, Luther’s most famous quotation is now available on these attractive ankle socks, in case you want to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of his nailing the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg.  .

500 years ago on Hallowe’en Day, The Rev. Dr. Professor Martin Luther took a hammer and several sheets of heavy paper with him to the Castle Church in his adopted hometown.  Wittenberg is in the former East Germany, south of Berlin.  He was already a well-known professor of Biblical interpretation, a monk who confessed his sins every day, and an admirer of the young scholars who called themselves humanists.

 The Door of the Castle Church where the 95 theses were nailed.  Now they are bronzed.The paper, of course, had the famous sentences on them, in Latin, meant to stimulate discussion among his students, fellow faculty, and the other literate people in town, including the Elector, who was a sort of governor of the region. The first thesis said that since Jesus urged people to repent, he meant for all of us to keep doing it. After all, we didn’t stop taking the wrong path just because our parents had us baptized. Don’t go with the flow, he urged: fight against it!

He chose All Hallows’ Day (All Saints Day, we call it now), the one day of the year when the Elector let everyone into what was essentially a private church for the nobility and church hierarchy.

The scandal had recently leaked out that the local Bishop, who’d been selling indulgences like they were initial public shares of Apple or Google, was not actually sending the money to Rome as advertised, but keeping it. And paying Rome with a secret high-interest loan.

The idea of indulgences was bad enough, Luther and his colleagues said. Very few people bother to go to confession any more. They don’t think about their inner lives, their ethics, their goals. They just buy one of these lovely documents, say the prescribed penitential words, and poof! Guaranteed removal of sins. St. Peter will put you in the Platinum Lane at the Pearly Gates. A plenary indulgence was a ticket to heaven.

But surely the God Jesus described in the New Testament would not approve of this. Surely Jesus, who raged against the money-changers in the Temple, would tell these traveling indulgence salesmen to hit the road, after tearing up their inventory.

Luther in front of the door

That was 1517. 500 years ago this coming Halloween. By 1521, under pressure from the church hierarchy, the young Emperor Charles V ordered Luther to Worms, where the Reichstag (sort of a Parliament) met. He was told to recant.   He refused, and was declared a heretic and outlaw.  Outlaws could not be fed, housed, or defended against violence.  By this time, the theses had been copied and read all over the German-speaking lands. Luther’s protector, the Elector of Saxony, arranged to have him “kidnapped” and “imprisoned” in a rather comfortable room in Wartburg Castle, about an hour’s drive from here.  In eleven hyperactive weeks while there, Martin translated the New Testament from the original Greek text into good, memorable, down-to-earth German. His work was so good that, maybe even more than Shakespeare’s English, he single-handedly created a common German vocabulary and way of writing. Hundreds of his phrases are now in everyday use. Luther was a brilliant scholar, but he knew how to speak to ordinary people.

When he left his exile and came back to Wittenberg, he was a local hero. Along with his fellow-professor Philipp Melanchthon and many others, he developed a Reformed Christian creed:

Spirituality, not empty rituals or fake documents

Bible reading, not ignorant obedience

Individuality, not hierarchy

Democracy, not feudal oppression

Johann Gutenberg’s industrial genius made mass-printing of books popular, and Die Bibel would become the best-seller of all. But for the majority of Germans who were unschooled there was also art. The pamphlet below contrasts Christ, who washed his disciples’ feet, with the Anti-Christ, the Pope, whose supplicants kissed his feet. You didn’t need literacy to understand the pictures.

Christ washing feet and Pope having feet kissed.  Christ and Anti-Christ

Up the river a half-mile from the Castle Church is the City Church, where Luther preached 2000 times or more. As a Protestant church, it’s plainer than Catholic churches, but still beautiful and full of images of God’s strength and mercy. I especially liked this inscription of Thesis #62: “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.” Not like all that marble, gold, and silver “treasure.”  Sorry it’s so small.  And in German.

Thesis 62: "The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God." – Version 2

Here’s a strongbox used for collecting payments for indulgences, with three different locks. I wonder if the salesman had any of the keys.

Indulgence Box

The monastery in Wittenberg was soon closed as was the convent of nuns. Many of the former religious married one another, as did Martin and Katharina von Bora. The Elector made sure the Luthers had an income, and housing. In fact, the former monastery was turned over to their family, and sometimes Katharina fed 60 people per day, including their six children and eleven adoptees, plus refugees, visitors, and wayfaring strangers.  Preach the Gospel, St. Francis once wrote, if necessary, use words.

Model of Luther's Household at dinner

Melanchthon got a comfortable house down the street, too, and housed students in the garret rooms I visited on the third floor. His table was also famous. Known since boyhood as a genius for his amazing skill with ancient and modern languages, he helped his older colleague Luther with countless passages in Greek and especially Hebrew. Luther spent more than a decade on the Old Testament

Melanchthon teaching in his house

German rulers in their patchwork of states, counties, duchies, and so on had to choose up sides.  Protestantism tended to do best in the north, and Catholicism in the south, but there were exceptions. German Bible sales in Catholic jurisdictions were forbidden and brisk.

As a language nerd, I feel closer to Melanchthon than to Luther. He was more inclined to smooth conflicts over (like me). When the younger Melanchthon finished his masterpiece summary of the Christian faith, Luther marveled at its diplomacy. He said, “I do not think I could have managed to tread so lightly.” Perhaps Melanchthon lacked the courage of the fiery Luther.

Or perhaps he believed you could catch more flies with honey than vinegar. My seminary professor at Harvard, Margaret Miles, used to encourage us to use the “hermeneutic of generosity” rather than the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Temperamentally, I lean towards the generous rather than suspicious, but I sure do admire Luther.  Here’s the table where Melanchthon used to lead tutorials:

Melanchthon's tutorial desk

And here is Luther’s famous Table Talk table, where students and colleagues would strive to remember every quotable story, polemic, tirade, crude analogy, and sincere confession, so they could write it down afterward.

Table Talk Table of Luther

Lynnell and I came to Wittenberg to learn more about the man who split Christianity. It’s often said that he did not intend to found a new branch of the Christian tree, but that’s what happened. He didn’t want to be The Great Divider.  But the situation seemed to offer him no choice.  Protestants went from being a party of reform to what we’d now call a “denomination.” Compared to Calvin and Zwingli’s mobs, Luther would say, we’re mild and reasonable.

Indeed, Lutheran and Catholic churches, to the untrained eye, are not very different at all, especially the contemporary ones. Especially since the 1960’s, when the Catholic Church agreed that worship should be in the local language, and the Bible should be widely-read and studied by all. There’s still a split over married clergy and the sacraments (Lutherans celebrate 2 and Catholics 7), but there is more river than tree these days between the former enemies.

I had to smile as I watched three women cart their day-care toddlers down the main street of Wittenberg, where Luther and Melanchthon and their families used to walk to the market and to church.

Day Care Carts on Main Street in WIttenberg

I visited a park with modern art installations celebrating this 500th Luther Anniversary. One was a mirrored cross you walked under so you could see what you look like from above.  I was reminded of the Prince of Egypt song, “Look at your life with heaven’s eyes.”

Me under a mirror

I close with this deft summary of Martin Luther’s understanding of Jesus:

Where Christ is, there he always goes against the flow.

It’s a good reminder for all of us peacemongers and diplomats who think we just need more understanding and cooperation: although Jesus surely stood for that, his very life, death, and resurrection were meant as a rebuke to worldly power.