Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vacation or Crash Course in 20th c. History?

I took this photo on July 13, 2009, at a still-standing portion of the Berlin Wall that faces the former Eastern Zone. Although the inscription was a recent addition to the colorful graffiti, I found its simple message appropriate and moving.

Esther and I spent 13 days in Northern Europe. Our vacation turned into a crash course in 20th century European and Russian history. In addition to having the privilege of touching the Wall, we also stood at the shipyard gates in Gdansk, Poland, where Lech Walesa and his brave coworkers, founded the Solidarity movement and demanded justice for dock workers and their families. The Communist authorities severely persecuted the strikers. What the regime didn't know in the late 1970s was that their punitive response marked the beginning of the end for a brutal system of government that expected to impose its will into the future, without end.

Although I'm still processing the thoughts and emotions experienced in our travels, I can say that I learned three important truths:

1. Ordinary, seemingly powerless people can change the world by standing up for what they believe.

2. Leaders who use power to oppress their people are nothing more than paper tigers. Their "absolute power" is a fiction. They can oppress only until people wake up and say they've had enough.

3. The human spirit cannot be crushed for long. Good will overcome evil in the end. Just not soon enough to prevent untold suffering. Sadly, someone needs to put his or her life on the line--as Jesus did--to expose the emptiness of evil.

Nov. 9, 2009, will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and reunification of Germany. There will be a mammoth celebration in Berlin. My heart will be there, too, celebrating the triumph of freedom and praying for all in the world who still suffer under oppressive regimes. May they find courage to expose the paper tigers cowering beneath the use of savage force.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Deja Vu: For the First Time

After living through World War II, the Cold War, and the fall of Communism, I will soon be visiting some historic places that will seem familiar. Yet, I've never been there. This year's vacation will take us to Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Gdansk (Poland).

Berlin. One of the two most significant cities of my early youth. The other being Tokyo. From 1941-1945, they represented everything evil in the world. Over the years I have become a WWII "buff." I devour almost any fiction I can get my hands on related to those years. Among my favorites are Jeff Shaara's (unfinished) trilogy (The Rising Tide and The Steel Wave). I'm taking with me on the trip Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield (2008). Now, I'll have an opportunity to tour Berlin and see some of its historic sites for myself.

St. Petersburg. Having lived with the (former) Soviet Union from 1945 to 1989, I will finally get to set foot in Russia. Apart from the historical significance of this land in my lifetime, I have a personal spiritual interest in visiting what used to be Leningrad. The Hermitage museum houses Rembrandt's painting, "The Return of the Prodigal Son." The master's rendition of the scene in Luke 15:21-24 is stunning. During the past year, I read the late Henri M. Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. I've always loved this parable--as most everyone does, religious or not--but I never understood it as thoroughly as I do now, after reading Nouwen's rendition. Before writing the book, he traveled to the Hermitage and spent hours before the painting meditating. I won't have that kind of time or access, but I am eager to see this masterpiece in person, even briefly.

Gdansk. Can't wait to be in the place where Lech Walesa founded the Solidarity movement. Brave dock workers challenged the all-powerful communist regime in Poland. Though suffering greatly for their resistance, they played a major role in toppling one of the first cards that brought down the entire USSR and its satellites. At the end of every Mass for decades, Catholics the world over prayed for the conversion of Russia. Few of us thought that in our lifetime we would witness Communism's demise. I don't know if "conversion" is quite the right word to use, but the fall of the Berlin Wall was a milestone on the world's timeline and my own, too.

Sounds heavy, doesn't it. Esther and I do plan to have fun, along with absorbing all the historic significance of these places.