Chasing after Ghosts

A little boy sashayed his way through the cemetery on his scooter. School was out for the day and English mums were walking their children home. A path winds sweetly through the many tombstones in the yard of the Great Saint Mary Church in Sawbridgeworth, England. The contrast between the excited voices of children happily processing their day with hand-holding moms and scattered tombstones covering centuries of village life was remarkable.

My sisters and I were spread out throughout the church yard looking for the name “Seymour” as a link to our past. This was the strand of our roots that brought us to this charming English village.
We trace our roots back to a Reverend John Seymour who lived in that area. He was born in 1535 and died October 22, 1605. The odds are slim that we would find tangible traces of someone who breathed their last in the early 17th century. Tombstones that date back more than 150 years were very difficult to read. I have found myself wishing on our ChurchandGraveyardTour that I had newsprint and a fat crayola crayon with which I could do gravestone rubbings. That would be the only way to decipher whose name is inscribed on the aged stones.
One local woman walked by me on the path and said, in her awesome Yorkshire accent, “It’s good to see some interest in this cemetery.” I’ve learned to tell our story to folks we encounter. I told her that four of us sisters were looking for the name of ancestors that might be buried in this shaded lawn. I don’t have to tell her that we are from the states. People know even before we open our mouths. This British mum was helpful. She told me to go knocking on the door of the vicarage because they would inevitably be there to let us in the church. If not, the phone numbers on the posted sign might connect me with someone who could let us in.

It was the phone calls that brought a response. Interestingly, the first call revealed that the senior pastor is on sabbatical this summer. So next I called the church secretary. It was off hours so dead end. But it gave the number of the Associate Pastor so I dialed up that number. Rev. Debbie answered, learned we were on the premises right now and wanted in right now. Graciously, as she grasped our intrusion on her day, she told me, ‘I can pop over right now, if you wish?” I love that British brogue! “That would be great,” I responded with gratitude.

In five minutes she was there, wearing her clergy collar and holding a serious set of keys. She wielded a classic “church key” that opened one set of doors that opened into a small breezeway. In front of us was a 15’ high wooden church door that she told us was 600 years old. “If this door could talk…”, I mused. She reached her hand through an opening in the door and leveraged a handle on the inside to give us access to another stunning sanctuary.

The Great Saint Mary’s is built on a site that probably dates back to early pagan worship. The base of their clock tower is anchored with “Pudding Stone” that dates back to about 1086, the pre-Domesday era. There was a church built atop the ancient pagan ruins that was destroyed in time. The present sanctuary, which was erected in the 15th century, was built out of flintstone and mortar. Both Elizabeth the First and Anne Boleyn worshiped in this sacred space. Like so many of the churches we have entered, the walls and floors are filled with memorial plaques and engraved family crests that honor the dead. Our hope was to find physical evidence of Rev. John Seymour in the building but we did not. We will have to write to a source in the village that holds genealogical records from centuries past.

Rev. Debbie was gracious, answering our questions and leaving us to scour the building as we wished. I climbed up into another impressive pulpit which housed a tattered Bible on a lone shelf. I opened it up to see when it was published. Inscribed in casual handwriting in the opening page were the words, “Gt. St. Mary’s Church, Sawbridge. Pulpit Bible.” I had a couple of thoughts when I looked at the tattered Bible: 1) This is really old, and 2)Their people must have better eyesight than ours because I can’ imagine being the lay liturgist and having to read from this tiny print! It has obviously been well used by the faithful in this parish and fueled a Christian devotion such that Great St. Mary’s is a vital church still today.
We’re discovering on this trip that many of our stops raise more questions than they answer. We want to know more about the ancestors who raised families, preached the gospel, and cultivated gardens here. I can see how folks can spend decades delving into family history to track limbs on family trees that are sometimes clearly filled in with firm handwriting and documentation. Other times the lines to the past are tenuous. We are the living chasing after ghosts whose DNA still drives us today. We felt the saintly presence of our Seymour roots in this town. Google confirms this as fact when we search for “John Seymour of Sawbridgeworth.” But we don’t know much more than that…yet! I’ve sent an email today to one of our family members whose genealogical research has been a great blessing to us. I’m hoping our exploring, that barely scratches the surface of family history, will inspire us forward in search of our past.


Still Life

Our goal was simple when we rented a car in Amsterdam: to return it with no responsibility for bicyclist fatalities. Bikers clearly have priority in this Dutch city. Several locals joked with us that there are more bikes than people in Holland. One look at the multi-level bike parking ramp at the Amsterdam train station and it appears to be more than myth. Cyclists have their own lane right next to cars. They seem to have the premier right of way followed by taxi drivers, buses then pedestrians. Oh yeah. Mo-peds can zip along at some 30 miles an hour legally in the bike lane. So every turn with your car is fraught with mortal risk. Garrett opted to drive so Maria and I were charged with looking out for bikers and walkers at every juncture.

Amsterdam is an amazing city but we felt relieved to journey eastward, leaving urban for rural. The Dutch countryside is stunning in its tranquility. Fields stretch in every direction with grains in varied hues of green and gold. Colorful flowers are in the fields and flowerboxes. In this lowland, water shows up all the time, rippling with waves from contented duck couples swimming about or flat-bottom boats steered by unhurried drivers. Modern windmills dot the land, replacing the traditional ones featured in artwork. We settled into our hotel room in Kalenberg which is right on a canal. Sitting on the balcony with a fresh breeze and birds happily chirping around me, I breathed in deeply this still life.

We were in the Dutch countryside with the goal of visiting towns related to Garrett’s ancestors. After a remarkable worship experience in Nijeveen (which I reflected on in my last post), we headed toward the small town of Wirdum. We were armed with a print-out of directions by a cousin that told us where to go and why. Wirdum is the village where VanHalsemas hammered out a life as silversmiths in the 1700’s. These directions, like a treasure map, told us to retrieve the key to the local church from a particular house that is situated right across the street. That there is a keymaster (a la Ghostbusters, right?) seemed like a the classic attribute of a small European town. We mentioned our instructions to our waiter who served us a delicious lunch while we worked up the courage to steal a key. He was in on it! He gave us more precise directions: the key was found on the back side of the left-hand pillar in an enclosure on this family’s private property. Thus dispelling any images I had of spending time in a Dutch jail, we left the restaurant and headed to the Keymaster’s house.

He was sitting in his living room in full view as we took the key. If we doubted the old age of the church, the key confirmed that it pre-dated our 171 year old church (the oldest congregation in our little town of Rockford). The key itself was about four inches long and was attached by a heavy chain to a metal ball about the size of an orange.

The man waved at Maria through his living room window so we decided that the key was indeed there for the taking.
The 13th century church was right across the way with an old brick path leading up to the front door. Even though the key audibly turned something inside the old door, we couldn’t get it to open. We reluctantly gave up on our own skills and decided we would have to bother the Keymaster to be let in. How many times did this happen to him, we wondered? After two timid knocks at his door and, finally, a doorbell, he answered. Any anxiety we had about irritating him was quickly dispelled. When we confessed our ineptitude he responded in good English. His name was James. His mother was English and had married a Hollander. Hence his ease with our language. When we explained our genetic link to the place he was immediately interested. It turns out that our inability to unlock the door was our good fortune. James became our willing guide and told us more about the church than we ever would have known on our own. When we said that we were related to the VanHalsema who was buried in the church his jaw dropped. Just two hours earlier another contingent of visitors had come seeking out the key and they, too, were VanHalsemas. They were not American, he told us. They were Dutch. Like a family tree road rally, it seemed like Garrett’s distant family members were scampering over the countryside just ahead of us looking for ancestry landmarks. What are the odds?!

James confirmed some of the descriptions in the family email. DJF VanHalsema was buried under the stone floor in the chancel area of the sanctuary. His grave is marked with a black stone that has the family crest etched into it. We didn’t know there was such a thing! James told us that the practice of burying people in the floor of churches was replaced at some point with moving the burial ground to just outside the building. When a body was newly interred in an ancient church, they would leave the space open for several weeks before closing it in with a marker. Predictably this allowed for an odor to permeate the church as the body…cured. The only folks who earned the privilege of being buried in a church building were those of great financial means. From this outmoded practice comes the expression “stinking rich.”

DFJ VanHalsema was the first to add the “van” before the name. He worked with silver and one of his pieces is in a museum in Groningen. He lived in a lovely manor called Rust Hoven that is owned privately and has a sweeping, tree-lined driveway that leads up to it. We decided not to bother these country folk for a tour even though James urged us to do so. The other VanHalsemas had already been there that day and had been warmly welcomed. We didn’t want to push our hospitality luck so we drove up to ogle it from afar. Clearly this 18th century forefather had money that allowed him to claim a crest and an inside plot!

In the small but lovely building James showed us the family pew box that has the crest carved into the back of it. There were only two other pew boxes and they were not owned by private families. He had learned that I was a pastor so he invited me to climb up into the pulpit to give it a feel. It’s moving for me to think of who has faithfully served God in different places. How many preachers had poured themselves into a sermon that gave these villagers enough hope to get past a drought, a battle, an untimely death? He suggested we try out the pipe organ which dates back hundreds of years. On keys with tarnished ivory, I played the only song I know by memory: Your Song by Elton John. I doubt that Sir Elton has ever figured into the worship at the Kerk van Wirdum before! It was either the open door or the strange music that drew in a couple of the village children. They looked around the small sanctuary with wide eyes then ran out to play in the yard across from the church. James gave us an hour or so of his time on a Sunday afternoon and we parted as friends.

The Dutch countryside offers a still life that is nourishing. We`ve been in countless museums on this trip and many of our favorite painters are drawn to the countryside. They capture the beauty of nature in different seasons and times of day. They choose as their subjects lowly workers who represent the average villager, like The Milkmaid by Vermeer or the Postman by VanGogh. We spent an afternoon in Monet’s garden in Giverny where he created an Eden that moved his brushes for several decades. Cezanne positioned ordinary items like fruit, flowers and the occasional slain goose with its neck askew to portray the blessing of simple gifts. While I love the buzz of a large city and the cultural opportunities it affords, I think we were created for the more rural setting that connects us more readily to Creation. In village life we met folks who were willing to share their time and kindness with us even though they owed us nothing. The call to hospitality trumped whatever else they had planned.

As we drove back into the wonderful chaos of Amsterdam, leaving the still life behind, I wondered if I would be as available to unexpected guests as was James?


Flesh and Spirit

We headed to Europe to explore roots of flesh and spirit. Today we experienced both in the small town of Nijeveen. It’s located in the province of Drenthe in the Netherlands. Our destination: Gerel Kerk, the Dutch Reformed Church that Garrett’s great-grandfather pastored between 1895 and 1929. As we walked in the prelude was playing and the sanctuary was half full. It is a newer building, not the one that Gerard VanHalsema preached in. The organ led our singing and was played well by a woman who identified herself as being a “young” organist. As in the states the organ is a neglected instrument.

The preacher was a retired pastor who was helping them out in a time of pastoral transition. He could have been plucked up from Nijeveen and put behind a Grand Rapids CRC pulpit and fit right in. Though we don’t speak a word of Dutch, we could follow along with the order of worship. We also followed the example of those near us, standing when prompted and closing our eyes for prayers when others were doing so. It was a musical service with the words projected onto a screen. We followed along as best we could, glad that our voices didn’t stand out from those who actually knew the language! Many of the hymns were in a minor key. Her offertory was “Abide with Me” and the hymn before communion was “Heilig, Heilig, Heilig” or “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty…” We sang that one with gusto!

When it was time for the sermon the preacher moved to the pulpit. Referring to his notes he began to preach from the book of Job or, as we heard it, Yobe. He was well prepared and spoke with feeling. I’m in the industry so I know it takes prayerful effort to deliver a sermon from which folks will draw nourishment. I had felt a disconnect between the era when Domine Gerard pastored this congregation and our morning worship. But as this interim pastor addressed the flock, I was struck that the roots of Garrett’s great-grandfather were here. Each pastor must faithfully preach the Word to his or her people so that their faith is deepened and they, in turn, will pass it on to the next generation. Pastor Gerard holds the distinction of having served Gerel Kerk longer than any other pastor. His ministry built up this congregation such that we could worship with these people almost 90 years after his retirement. He was so beloved that the street directly behind the church is named after him: Ds VanHalsemastraat. The Ds indicates that he was a pastor.

He and his wife, Willempje are buried in the church graveyard in a gated area behind the building. Their tombstones are tall and announce the significant role these two people played in the life of the congregation. Garrett felt emotional standing before the buried bodies of ancestors who were only a memory by the time he was born. The link to Garrett’s DNA was very evident in this remote Dutch church.

Roots are most often claimed in terms of flesh. But in addition to biological ties, we are defined and united by DNA of the Spirit. Even without understanding the language, we were able to join with these Hollanders from rural Drenthe. My prayer going into the service as complete strangers was that God would show up in some special way. I prayed that our roots journey that had led us to cross an ocean, ride trains, taxis, public transportation and rented cars would be blessed in some unexpected manner. This certainly happened!

We sang a lot throughout the service. That’s one thing Christians do uniquely-we sing together, often carrying home with us the melody and the words. The Psalm of the day was sung, not read: Psalm 34. A few of the words were similar to English so we understood the message of David that ends with these words: “The LORD redeems the life of his servants: none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” How many generations have clung to those words of assurance in times of trial? It was a natural pairing with a reading from Job, a man of God whose losses surpass those of anyone. After the sermon there was another prayer. In just a few phrases we recognized it was the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t have to speak their language to join in. After being on the road for two weeks it was comforting to be in worship with all the familiar components.

It was also a communion Sunday. The usual words were shared, the bread was broken and the cup was poured. Christ’s sacrifice for all of humanity was remembered and celebrated 3,995 miles from my home congregation. We got a goodly swig of Dutch DNA when went forward to share in the common cup. I’m a bit squeamish about that practice but figure folks have survived these germs for 2000 years so I trusted in Christ’s redemptive powers even in this cup!

The most difficult time for visitors is after the service. Will we be noticed? Will people greet us? Folks did and they addressed us in broken English. Our nationality was more evident than we realized! “Kaffe? Downstairs? You come?” One of the gentlemen knew English fairly well. When we made the connection for him of Garrett’s ancestral past, he whisked us into a back room and showed us a framed document that listed all the former pastors which, of course, included Gerard VanHalsema. Our new Dutch friend was excited!

He pulled other parishioners into the project of producing historical documents for us. He led us to the graveyard and took our picture by the tombstones. An elderly couple was getting on their bikes to ride home from church. The husband is the groundskeeper for the church cemetery and was delighted to be able to link a trio of Americans with two tombstones he had faithfully tended over the years. Another woman ran to her home and came back with a souvenir packet of photographs of the original building which was Gerard’s parish. Bert, our volunteer guide, pointed to the empty lawn in front of the church and told us that is where the old church and parsonage had stood. It was in this peaceful space that Garrett’s grandfather, Emo, would have hugged his parents goodbye at the young but courageous age of 18 to set sail for America. The faith that Gerard modeled in that small town would take root in Emo, who became a Christian Reformed minister in the States. Emo’s eldest son became an ordained CRC minister and two of Emo’s grandsons did as well: Clark VanHalsema and Garrett.

The roots of flesh and spirit are richly intertwined. Our tour ended at Bert’s home where a surprised but welcoming wife offered us buns and milk. We broke bread again. To be welcomed as family by our brothers and sisters in Nijeveen was an amazing gift!


Second Hand Smoke

I spent the evening of the summer solstice trying not to inhale! We arrived in Amsterdam in the early afternoon, checked into our hotel and each took a substantial nap to recover from…well, a train trip but more likely 9 days of being on the road.

Refreshed we walked toward the museum district to find someplace for dinner. Within the first half hour of our walk it was very clear to us that marijuana is legal and available in this liberally-minded city. So can you get stoned on the solstice by second-hand smoke?! I tried not to find out!

Though we haven’t made it down to the red light district in our short stay, we understand that prostitutes are for hire openly with nearby vans serving as love nests for those paying for their services. How convenient. One further observation by our fashion-conscious daughter is that the outfits of Amsterdam residents are much more interesting to her than those of Parisians. They push boundaries of style by mixing colors and patterns. Their choice of clothing is more unique and not as classic in taste as those walking the rues and  boulevards of Paris. Interesting.

I`m not sure how I feel about the legalization of pot for recreational smoking. I know that habitual smoking of cannabis can chill people out so much that aspects to daily life slip by. Responsibilities and duties that come with adult life can be shirked when a daily escape is offered freely from smoking. I understand the medicinal value but am not sure of the effect legalization of recreational pot has on a society. In our own country, Colorado is serving as an experimental field. Time will tell.

I’m not sure that I even consider myself to be conservative or prudish. I recognize that legalizing forbidden fruits sometimes is the  best way to deal with widespread, chronic violations of laws whose efficacy are questioned. I have no time to judge people for decisions they make but have certainly served in a pastoral capacity to those who have found themselves in difficult straits because of narcissistic indulgences, whatever they may be. I’m a strong proponent of moderation. But I also feel called to evaluate life around me through a spiritual lens. Is this behavior/lifestyle possibly going to drive a wedge between this person and God? Will it rob them of living into their God-given potential? As Christians we are called to enter into our world with Christ-like compassion, bringing the best out of people by the way that we love them. In our messy world, this is seldom easy or well-received!

Garrett and I toured the Nieuwe Kerk or New Church of Amsterdam this afternoon. The name is ironic because it is actually a very old church! We paid 11 euros apiece and were excited to see another beautiful worship space. The banners hanging on the outside of the building told us that there was an exhibition featured inside: the World Press Photo display. 160 award~winning press photos representing 22 countries are hung throughout the sanctuary space with explanatory notes. The images were compelling, disturbing, moving. It’s a good show.

But our surprise is that this highly regarded, must-see church in Amsterdam really no longer functions as a church. The pews were removed long before this exhibit came to town. There are no regular worship services in this exquisite space. One stained glass window has been modernized with a sort of Sponge-Bob-on-Cannabis ocean scene. Honestly!

The other stained glass windows that have designs cut into them depict people and circumstances that speak to the cultural and military history of this country. No prophets. No parables. No Jesus! I began to understand why some of the more “conservative” members of the Dutch Reformed Church emigrated to the United States looking for a rich spiritual life that was lacking in their homeland. In De Nieuwe Kerk of Amsterdam I see evidence that politics were made central to religious life and not Jesus. I understand why some folks would choose to go elsewhere, even at great risk to themselves and their families, to worship in a place-no matter how modest-where Jesus is the understood Host!

So as I’m hoofing it through crowds in this lovely city trying not to get stoned on second-hand smoke, I wonder if an absence of Christian values allows a culture more easily to slide toward self-satisfying behaviors? If so, at what point do people recognize the spiritual vacuum that leaves them without answers to life’s hardest questions? When and if they do, will they know to go to a church for holy food?

I know from my faith to watch for signs of hope in all circumstances. And I saw some! In our tour of the Jewish district today that ends at the hiding place of Anne Frank and her family, I heard stories of heroism of Dutch citizens who willingly risked their lives to save those of their Jewish compatriots. I learned that Vincent VanGogh’s love for the common person and the beauty of nature stemmed at least in part from his upbringing as a pastor’s kid. Though he was tormented in many ways in his short life, the visceral appeal of his works is because he found the soul to each subject and used paint and brush to let others into his rich worldview.

Finally, while walking along a bustling cobbled street lined with modern shops and coffeehouses, I saw a laminated sign on a wooden door that announced that this hole-in-the-wall was actually a church. And they have weekly worship services. In space much less grand than the interior of the New (very old!) Church, Jesus’ name is praised. That gives me  hope  for my new friends in lovely Amsterdam!


39 Years

We climbed to my favorite spot in Paris on Saturday: Montmartre and Sacre Coeur. Literally, we climbed! The basilica sits atop a hill that offers an awe-inspiring view of the city from a northern vantage point. The nearest metro only takes you so far and then you have to wend your way up winding roads strewn with charming cafes frequented by a global clientele. Countless stairs. But breathless becomes breath-taking when you see the grandeur of this white stone church rise before you.

I did the math. It had been 39 years since I had last stood on this site. I was a sophomore at St Olaf College on a semester abroad to work on my French major. For the month of January about ten of us lived in Hotel Jean Bart and ventured out into the city each day to explore another layer of it. We learned how to say, “Put your buns in gear” (rough translation: Mettez les petits pains en marche!) to spur on those who didn’t move so quickly in the morning. We ate patisseries and photographs of my ballooning face from that January Interim boast of their goodness. We transcribed portions of a radio broadcast each day to finetune our listening skills. We entered into buildilngs with such history and beauty that we stopped our collegiate chatter and stared in awe. Sacre Coeur and Montmartre was one such area for me.

39 years. It looked the same. Could it really have been that long? The presence of my husband of 33 years and my youngest daughter who is on the brink of 21 was evidence of a great passage of time. The 19 year old co-ed was still in me but with a few added layers of life (in several ways…). I could not have guessed in 1979 that I would return with rusty French language skills, a career as a parish  minister and a family whose best interests I hold most dear in my heart. But the distance of time has a way of fading away when we find ourselves standing on holy ground.

39 years later I have a little more money to spend on tourism so we hired a guide to tell us about this beloved area of Paris. I learned that the Romans once had a fortress on the hill! That’s right, the Romans! They had a temple to the god, Mars, and there is some conjecture that the name of the district is derived from these ancient roots, as in Mont of Mars. Once the Romans left the scene the Christian pilgrims tried to erase all  vestiges of the pagan worship. They erected the Eglise de Sainte Pierre, which still stands today. In fact, the bells were ringing as we arrived on the hill. So the Christians took over the hilltop but this ancient sanctuary has several pillars that were crafted by the Romans for their own worship space. I like to touch history, imagining who quarried, hauled, chiseled, and shaped these building pieces of the past. Garrett caught a picture of me running my hands across a dark stone pillar that was the handiwork of Christ’s government. Time moves forward but traces of the past are part of the foundation for new lives and movements.

Fast forward to Saint Denis. He is believed to have been martyred on this popular hilltop by beheading. Legend tells us that he carried his head in his hands some six kilometers before dying. I’d say that deserves canonical recognition! In some architectural carvings, including in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, you will see a line up of the saints and he is the one standing with good posture and his own head in his hands. That must have been quite a photo shoot for the other guys! At any rate, some hold that the name of this Parisian district comes from his martyrdom: Mont of Martyrs.

Our very knowledgable guide, Miriam, walked us through the business area, which is teeming with tourists. In the 1800s this area of Paris was far removed from the town center and was, therefore, cheap rent for starving artists. It seems like buildings in France last forever so she showed us some of the places where well known artists ordered cheap grub, hoping for a bit of success with their etchings. At one eatery now named Restaurant Le Consulat, Renoir is reputed to have traded one of his paintings for a piece of bread and a glass of wine.

Later that day we looked at that same painting hanging on the walls of the Musee D’Orsay behind protective wires that will sound an alarm if you get too close to it. Something tells me that there are still some baguette crumbs along the edge of the frame and some camembert cheese smeared in a spot or two from the time this painting hung in a local bar drawing the occasional interest of Renoir’s contemporaries who probably had too much to drink. Years pass and life changes in ways never imagined. The scene the impressionist artist painted depicted the social life of Montmartre at a cafe in his day. The customers look back at us from the museum walls and, with a change of clothing and different hair, they could be the folks drinking wine and laughing around tables at cafes encircling the artists’ square today. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that what is now has already been. Though time passes there is nothing new under the sun.

It was obvious that 39 years had passed since I last visited Sacre Coeur when we paid six euros each to climb to the “observation deck” near the top of the biggest and central dome. We assumed there would be an elevator added to this ancient and majestic cathedral. You know what happens when you make an assumption! Right. So we walked. I mean, we climbed a narrow staircase that must have been included for medieval bell ringers. Our 20 year old daughter ran ahead of us while we lived out our marriage vows in new ways  by offering physical encouragement and some prayers for each other.

Time and bodies had changed but when we made it to the top and looked out over the beautiful city of Paris, all the layers of my life melded together perfectly as if time had stood still.


En Famille

Seven summers ago Garrett and I returned from work to share a meal. In the course of dinner conversation one of us mentioned an article we had seen in the local newspaper. Not unlike a Humane Society appeal that pulls on your heartstrings with appeals to adopt forlorn animals, this article featured two international students hoping for an American family to sponsor them. We had generically talked about hosting an exchange student without pinning down details But we both had been drawn to the young woman in the article who was from the French island of Reunion. We dusted off our globe (do kids still use those today?) and located a dot in the ocean between India and Madagascar. How exotic! We made the call to the listed number and were busily preparing the guest room for Berenice by the end of the week! Things fell into place so easily that we knew God was at work expanding our family with a girl who claimed home on the other side of the world!

Berenice lived with or near us six of the past seven years. Her parents visited twice and our time with them was enjoyable. It gave me a great opportunity to use my long-neglected French language skills and they pulled out some English as well. Garrett and Louis are masters at Franglais, which made for some good laughs. Their second visit was to celebrate Berenice`s graduation from Grand Valley State University. She had four proud parents cheering her on! They thanked us for the Christian hospitality we extended to her over the years. We thanked them for sharing their daughter with us. In a time of international tensions and national myopia, we knew our mutual trust was a rare gift.

An early stop on our Nourishing Roots journey this summer was to visit Annie and Louis in their hometown of Villerville. It`s a charming hamlet in Normandy where Annie owned and operated the well known Cabaret Normand for five years. This bar/restaurant became a destination point when it was used as the location for the movie, Singe en Hiver, released in 1962.

They treated us to a wonderful dinner at a favorite seaside restaurant and reserved rooms for us in the nearby town of Honfleur. This port town bustles with tourists and is delightful!

We drove together to see Omaha Beach, about a 1 ½ hour drive. Not unlike Gettysburg it is a sobering battleground where words seem superfluous. We learned that the French have given the land that the American cemetery is on to our country as a gift. Over 9,000 of our soldiers who lost their lives in the battle on Normandy beaches are buried there. Four nationalities of soldiers fought together courageously to oppose the Nazi regime, many of whom were still teenagers. The French sacrificed from their own people to bring Hitler`s regime to an end and to assist our military. 18,000 French citizens were killed during the fighting in Normandy. One marquis read, “Even before the invasion began, Allied bombing raids inflicted casualties on the French Civilian population. Many more would die after the landings, caught between Allied and German forces as the battle raged deeper into Normandy. Yet the French yearned for liberation. They welcomed, fed, and protected the Allied troops entering their towns, and members of the French Resistance continued to harass the enemy despite reprisals against their neighbors.” After four years of occupation the Allied troops made their way to Paris to reclaim the city. Our men were celebrated as heroes as much as their own.

The cemetery closes to the public at 6PM. We had wandered quietly through the countless rows of tombstones bearing the shape of the cross or the star of David. Then a woman in a Naval uniform began to play a trumpet. I expected taps but it was something equally mournful. She stood at the edge of an area of the cemetery that we noticed was blocked off. There were folks with cameras and a wooden box on a stand. We learned that the family of Julius Pieper was there for his burial next to his twin brother, who had been laid to rest in Normandie 74 years earlier.

They were identical twins sons born to German immigrants who had moved to Nebraska before the war. They enlisted together and were on the same boat when in shattered on an underwater mine. They were 19 years old. Ludwig had been found and identified early on. Julius’ body wasn’t found until 1961 by French salvage divers. He was identified only by a number until 2017 when they determined his identity. The family chose for him to be joined next to the one with whom he had shared space his whole life: first in the womb, then in the boat and now in the warm embrace of the earth. They are the 45th pair of brothers buried at the cemetery but are the only set of twins. Even though we were only able to witness a bit of these military honors, we and the Lagardes found this occasion to be very moving.

We made our way back to their airy home that sits amidst the lush green of Normandie. Annie prepared a lovely traditional meal for us of fish in cream sauce with capers. Several courses were enjoyed with good conversation, beginning at 9PM and lasting almost until midnight. The French phrase, en famille, translates to be in, with or among family. That was our experience on a long summer day with the Lagardes who have, by God`s grace, become family to us. Not all roots share DNA, like Julius and Ludwig Pieper who are finally reunited on earthly soil. Some of the best claims of family come from shared lives and trusting spirits no matter where we call home. For us this experience of being “en famille” began because of the decision of one courageous girl to cross the ocean and claim us as home. A bientot, Annie and Louis! Merci pour votre hospitalite!


What’s in a Name?

Someone recently offered their gratitude to me by saying, “Thank you, Linda.” I didn’t correct her. I had been introduced to her in a group setting just that day to help with a project. I knew she had met a number of different people who came for the same purpose. It was improbable that our lives would overlap again so correcting her took more energy than it was worth. Sometimes a mistaken name is not such a big deal. But when someone who should know better calls you by the wrong name, it matters! Or, we’ve had that experience when someone greets us by name and we have no idea who they are! We madly rifle through the files in our brain to remember how we know them and who they are. They hold some sort of power over us when they know our name and we haven’t a clue as to who they are.

When God urges Moses to go before Pharaoh, the ruler of the land, and ask for his people to be liberated, Moses understandably doubts the success of this request. He asks a reasonable question: who should I say has sent me with this preposterous proposal? But God doesn’t give him the answer he had hoped for. God is elusive and refuses to be boxed in. The name given to Moses is vague but conveys power: “I am who I am!” Yahweh can also translate as “I will be who I will be.” In other words, you will never be able to box Me in or have power over Me by possessing my name. So the Jews stuck with this name-unlike-any-other for their God. The second commandment underscores the hallowed nature of this Divine Handle: “You shall not take the LORD’s name in vain.” Names matter.

We started off our Roots tour not because of genetics but because of a name: Maria. As a child I was enchanted by the movie, The Sound of Music. Fraulein Maria’s character won me over and I filed her name away in my heart. Years later Garrett and I gave that name to our youngest child. She has derived part of her identity through the movie. So our first morning in Salzburg we took a four-hour long tour that traced the important places where the movie was shot. The city is so culturally rich that the crew had many beautiful and authentic backdrops from which to draw. The Nonnberg Abbey where the real Maria entered as a novice is situated in the hills of the city just below the Hohensalzburg Fortress that dates back to 1077. The gazebo was moved to the grounds of Hellbrun Castle where it is protected from overly zealous fans who imitate the dance scene from the movie! (One 82 year old woman frolicked happily from bench to bench until she fell and broke one of the glass panels! Now it remains locked…) From across the lake we saw the mansion where many of the outdoor scenes were shot. This is where Maria and the children fell out of the boat in front of a dismayed Captain VonTrapp. The Mirabell Palace Gardens in the center of the Old City offered a vine-covered archway, stairways with wrought-iron gates and stately fountains that are still attracting visitors today.

Movie fans hailing from at least a dozen countries filled our bus. Our guide said that every country knows and loves this movie except for Austria. With our varied accents we sang along to the show tunes as we drove through breath-taking alps. We stopped at the small town where the wedding scene took place. Maria Augusta Trapp wrote her story originally as a book which first became a Broadway play before it was made into a movie in 1965. Garrett hunted down a copy of the book on eBay which he gave me as a gift. Maria Trapp and nine of the children signed this copy years ago in their home state of Vermont. Liberties were taken in the transmission of book to movie. There wasn’t a Baroness who fought for the heart of the Captain against this pure-hearted nun. Julie Andrews was a relatively unknown actress in 1965 so they added the love interest of the Baroness so as to include in the cast a name that would draw crowds: Eleanor Parker. A leading lady in the 40’s and 50’s, the director, Robert Wise, knew that she would add to the film’s success. How interesting that Julie Andrews would end up being the more lasting name in Hollywood because of this timeless classic of a movie. Names matter!

So my Maria has experienced a bit of her roots in Austria! We agreed that we would gladly return to Salzburg for a longer visit. The beauty and romance of the city and surrounding Alps is indescribable! Perhaps it’s a city calling out your name?



I love doorways. They evoke a sense of mystery. Think of the intrigue of what is behind Door Number 3 in Let’s Make a Deal! It could be anything! What doorways did you walk through each day in your childhood? What door was particularly difficult for you to push open because you were anxious about what was on the other side? Even Jesus identified Himself as a sort of doorway: the true gate through which we would find love and protection and life.

Walking around Old City Salzburg there were countless grand entryways into unknown recesses. The most notable was the door that gives access to the building that boasts being the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Though it cannot be the actual door it’s a holy site nonetheless.

It rained all evening so we saw Salzburg by umbrella. Even the continual drizzle could not hide the tremendous beauty to Mozart’s hometown. Along the windy brick roads that snake through colorful buildings, we stumbled upon statues, fountains, carved pillars, and paintings. The talent of this renowned composer was obviously encouraged by an aesthetic hunger to Salzburg.

The other lasting imprint in this ancient city are the churches. We entered three of them this evening, each uniquely beautiful, each offering peace.

Maria is impressed with the artistic sacrifice that went into these places of worship. In Mozart’s time the Church was the center to folks’ lives so their viewpoint was, of necessity, theological. In reverence to Christ, some artisans carved powerful crucifixes. Others painted images of holy figures. Stained glass artists left their imprint by casting a colorful light on the devotees for generations to come. Musicians composed music that stirred the souls of countless disciples over the ages, guiding beyond the individual notes to God.

In this city, amidst a cultural splendor, surrounded by awe-inspiring churches, through this doorway, everyday, the blessed genius of Mozart was shaped.

Soli Deo Gloria!



Today is a bonus day. Originally I thought we would arrive in Munich in the evening, crash for the night then head to Salzburg in the morning, never having experienced this German town. But our flight schedule landed us in this city of 1.5million residents at 8:30 AM local time. A whole day stretched before us! Of course, the clock moved forward six hours while we crossed the Atlantic. So our bodies disembarked thinking it was 2:30AM and time for bed. A fine German chauffeur named Pieter drove us to the Eden Hotel Wolff  where, strangely, the people who stayed in our reserved room the night before hadn’t yet left their beds! With several hours to kill before we could check in to nap, we deposited our bags and started walking.

We found our way to an amazing town square with buildings that dated back hundreds of years. A window table at the Glockenspiel Cafe gave us a perfect view of the clock tower that came to life while we ate our breakfast. The square below our 5th floor window was busy with all nationalities of folks enjoying a beautiful summer morning.

Refreshed from our meal and a couple of strong cups of coffee, we headed toward the yellow cathedral at the end of the concourse. Garrett and I have always gravitated toward churches in new cities. Even a “strange” sanctuary still feels, well, safe. I’ve always felt at home in a church, knowing that I am with family. I knew one guy who wasn’t raised in the faith. When his wife would head into historic parishes with stunning architecture while on vacation, he would exit pretty quickly, feeling “creeped out” by their unfamiliar aura. How sad, I thought.

So when my daughter exclaimed audibly at the beauty of the Theatine Church, I was grateful. She feels the holinesss too! She was struck that the enormous paintings depicting Biblical figures were originals–no prints in this 17th century holy place. The pulpit is carved wood suspended off the wall, a much more daunting place from which to deliver a sermon than I can imagine! Does it have to be a fire and brimstone sermon if you’re perched 15 feet above your parishioners? There were little chapels along the side corridors of main sanctuary, each with its own confessional booth. When is the last time you  confessed your sin outloud before someone in a prayerful manner? We Protestants have never beeen good at that. We contemporary North Americans are much more interested in blaming others for our issues than accepting responsibility. But I contend that the act of spoken contrition in the privacy of a confessional would do us a world of good!

There were opportunities throughout the building to light votive candles to honor the dead. My  mind went quickly to a former colleague and dear friend who had died in his sleep just nine days before. With the rush of the trip preparation I had hardly had time to grieve his loss. So I lit a candle for Robert and prayed at one of the handsome wooden railings that had supported the knees of countless pilgrims over the ages. Not far from the votive stand was a rack of small hymnals. One of the things we uniquely do in our worship as Christians is to sing. We sing of our joys, fears, questions and epiphanies. Just seeing these songbooks reassured me that worship still happens in this beautiful building. It isn’t just a museum as many of the stunning European churches have become. Robert was a church musician raised in a large family of musicians. The pastor with whom he led worship knew something was very wrong when he didn’t show up to play for the service. When loved ones checked on him, he was found in bed, peacefully departed from this world on the Sabbath morning. As I remembered him in my prayers at an ancient kneeler, I rejoiced to know that, though his earthly music had ceased, a heavenly chorus had welcomed him home.

So what a great bonus day this has been! We have successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean, no small miracle really! We have grieved the departed and celebrated our living. We bathed our pilgrimage in prayer and are ready for Salzburg tomorrow!


Let’s go already!

There comes a point when the trip you’ve been planning for so long needs to begin. I am there! I’ve been actively planning this trip for a year and a half. But I first started dreaming about putting together a grant proposal to trace my roots in Europe years ago. So it’s time! I’ve been packing, repacking, fretting, organizing my documents, losing sleep and praying that all will go well. There’s nothing more I can do. It’s time to get this show on the road!

I look at the story of Abram and Sarai and I am a little bit jealous. God tells them to pack their bags and leave their home country for an unknown destination to be determined by a Stranger/Deity who made nebulous, grandiose promises. And all the Scripture says in Genesis 12:4 is, “So Abram left as the Lord had told him.” He and Sarai didn’t have to paint some rooms in their house to maximize the sale price. There were no trips to the bank to transfer funds to a travel account. We don’t read of them sitting on a suitcase to snap it shut with all their worldly possessions therein. There’s no estate sale, no cooler filled with sandwiches or endearing words of farewell to their community. From the scriptural account it sounds like they heard God’s invitation to leave, turned toward each other with a shrug and loaded up the camels. Perhaps we overthink our travels?

But this is a big trip! This trip is worthy of some angst. I will be traveling to six countries in 30 days. There are lots of connections to various cities. There are vouchers for museums, bus rides, and church tours. There’s an itinerary I’ve assembled that lists 18 different hotels. So losing some sleep in the middle the night is not too surprising.

What gives me peace is knowing that this trip is of God! A fantastic grant – writing committee at the church worked with me to put together a dream of an experience for both the church and for me.What I have witnessed since then is that God has greatly enhanced even our most out of bounds ideas. There are parts to the trip that have been added that I never would’ve thought to ask for. I will be preaching at a church in England that is located a matter of miles from the Air Force Base where I lived as a small child. Imagine my excitement as I’ve pondered what message to bring to my brothers and sisters in Christ in England, the land of my roots! I get to share the first half of the trip with my husband and youngest child, the second half of the trip with three of my sisters. We will worship in a church that Garrett’s great grandfather pastored and where his grandfather grew up in the parsonage.

The last three days of the trip I will spend in a reflective retreat on my own on the isle of Iona. There is a worshiping Christian community that has been there for decades. This has been on my bucket list for over a decade. God is the guide and the inspiration behind this trip. What have I to fear?!

So bring it on! Double check for passports and the credit card. Get my phone and charger and, if needed, the rest of the stuff can be purchased along the way. I am thankful to have had this time to plan. I’ve been able to share the story of this trip with many people who have seen God’s guiding hand in this roots journey. I know that they are praying for safe passage and meaningful experiences for us. Just 48 more hours and we will be in the air leaving Detroit for Munich. I welcome your prayers. I invite your companionship for this trip of my life time!