The City Councillor and the Poinsettia

Poinsettia 2

(courtesy Pixabay)

A city councillor in the Canadian city of Victoria returned to city hall recently and found a poinsettia on his desk.  The councillor, a non-Christian, made it clear that he didn’t want this  “symbol of the Christian faith.”  Not only that, he didn’t think public money should be spent to erect Christmas banners or holly-boughs–or even to string Christmas lights on the giant sequoia standing next to city hall.  Such decorations, the councillor believes, retain overt Christian symbolism and are thus a violation of the separation between church and state.  According to the councillor, any seasonal decorations paid for by public funds and put up in the public square should be inclusive.  The city council, in response, has agreed to meet in the coming year to review their practices.

I wonder how many people actually look at a poinsettia today and, like the disgruntled councillor, see a “symbol of the Christian faith.”  Until the councillor raised his issue with the poinsettia, I was unaware that the plant  (and it’s the red leaves of the plant, not the flower) had any particular religious significance.  I assumed it was the plant’s vivid red colour, plus the fact that it blooms in December, that accounted for its popularity at this time of year.   Red and Christmas seem to go together:   think Santa’s suit, Rudolph’s nose, holly berries.  The councillor, however, is correct:  there is a religious connection.  In Mexico, where the plant is indigenous, poinsettias are called Flores de Noche Buena, ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’, in other words, Christmas Eve flowers.  Early Mexican Christians thought that the shape of the leaves of the plant resembled the Star of Bethlehem and tthat the red colour symbolized the blood of Christ.

It was America’s first ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who is responsible for bringing the stunning red plant to the US in 1828. A  keen botanist, he discovered the plant in southern Mexico.

The plant is now found in an array of colours–from red to coral to pink to white.  And then there are all the poinsettias tinted blue and purple.   Given all the colours of poinsettias that are now available, that spiritual connection between the flower and the Star of Bethlehem and the blood of Christ is long gone.

The councillor doesn’t just have poinsettias in his sights, however:  he wants the Christian element in all the city’s seasonal decorations ‘dialed back’.  This ‘dialing back’:  It’s already happened with language.  Christmas is now ‘the festive season’ or ‘winterlude’ or ‘festival of light’.  The correct Christmas greeting is ‘Happy Holidays’.  It’s the same with music. Radio stations and stores keep to the same limited repertoire of ‘secular’ Christmas pop numbers. If one does happen to hear a traditional Christmas carol, it is an instrumental rendition–no words, as that would expose the Christian element in the song.

What would a secular symbol look like?  What symbol would appeal to everyone, and offend no one, in today’s multi-cultural society?  A snowflake?  Cold, ephemeral.  Just doesn’t have the warmth of a star or a lighted evergreen tree.  Creating a new inclusive symbol:  Not an easy thing to do.

No more poinsettias, no more holly boughs, no more lighted Christmas trees in the public square?  “No way,” responded the councillor’s fellow citizens when they heard what he had in mind.  (I wonder if he anticipated the scale of the backlash.)  As the councillor’s fellow citizens made clear:  Those who celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25–and those who don’t (undoubtedly the majority now)–continue to want their city aglow with shimmering lights and brightly-decorated trees–and red poinsettias.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Waiting: An Essential Part of Christmas

advent wreath2                                               (public domain image of an Advent wreath)

Those who follow my blogs may wonder where I’ve been this past year.  Why did I suddenly stop blogging?  I’m really not sure.  ‘Blog burn-out’:  Is there is such phenomenon?  Anyway, I can’t let 2018 pass into history without a contribution or two to the  blogosphere.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent.   In churches throughout the world today, someone will walk up to the front of the sanctuary and light one of four candles mounted in a circular evergreen wreath.  While this is happening, someone else will read a Scripture passage or a poem.  So begins Advent, from the Latin adventus, ‘coming’:  the name given to the four-week time period prior to December 25, intended as a season of expectant waiting and spiritual preparation, climaxing in the celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas morning.

I never watched the lighting of an Advent candle, or even heard the word ‘Advent’, as a child or teenager.  It was not part of my early church experience.  Which is surprising, given that the Advent wreath had its origins in Protestantism and was created with children in mind.  Like so many Christmas traditions, it originated in Germany.  In 1839, a Lutheran minister, working at a children’s mission, fashioned the first Advent wreath out of the wheel of a cart, on which he then placed a series of red and white candles.

As the creator of the first Advent wreath recognized, waiting is hard, especially for children. Hence the popularity of today’s Advent calendar,  with its chocolate treats behind each of the 25 little doors. Like the Advent wreath, the Advent calendar had its origins in Germany when a newspaper in the early 1900s included an Advent calendar insert as a gift to the newspaper’s patrons.  Isn’t it ironic how the ‘Christ’ in Christmas has been driven deliberately from the public square, yet the word ‘Advent’ lives on in a calendar (even though many will not know what the Advent in an Advent calendar stands for)!  There are even Advent calendars strictly for grown-ups now, such as the whiskey calendar that contains a sample of select whiskey behind each of the doors.

Waiting:  it’s a part of Christmas.  It was part of the First Christmas, too.   Luke’s Gospel (2:25-38) tells us about people who were waiting, two of whom are named: Simeon and Anna.  Simeon, described as righteous and devout, was waiting for “the consolation of Israel”, in other words, Israel’s Messiah.  The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had set eyes on the Messiah. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Simeon went the temple in Jerusalem, arriving at the very time that Mary and Joseph entered, bearing their firstborn.   Mary had come to the temple in obedience to the purification rites demanded of new mothers forty days after giving birth to a son (Leviticus 12:1-4).   Simeon recognized immediately (under the influence of the Holy Spirit again!) that the baby in Mary’s arms was the one he had been waiting for!  Where others in the temple court no doubt saw only an ordinary baby, doing what six-week-old babies do–wailing from colic, perhaps, or fussing, or spitting up, maybe sleeping–Simeon  saw the promised Messiah.  Picking up Jesus, he praised God.

At that very moment, old Anna, a prophet, approached the jubilant Simeon.  Anna had been a widow for almost all of her 84 years, having lived with her husband only seven years after her marriage.  Like Simeon, she was devout–possibly even more so–never leaving the temple but spending her time there, fasting and praying.  Perhaps she heard the commotion from across the temple court, and came over to investigate what all the excitement was about.

Simeon and Anna represent that remnant of faithful Jews who had continued to wait in eager anticipation for the Messiah down through the ages.  The two respond very differently to the revelation they receive that day.  Simeon had been informed by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had set eyes on the Messiah.  Now that this has happened, he tells God he is ready to die, saying:  “…you may dismiss your servant in peace./For mine eyes have seen your salvation…”. Because Simeon is ready to die, it is assumed that he is an old man, but that is not necessarily so.

Anna, on the other hand, is an elderly woman, 84 years of age, as Luke makes explicit.  Her response?  She didn’t talk about dying; rather, she spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to “the redemption of Israel”.  I can picture her excitedly accosting those who were waiting for the Messiah with the words,  “He’s here!  I’ve seen him with my own eyes.”  Was she believed?  Did some put her ‘good news’ down to nothing more than the ravings of a doddery old woman?  Anna, in my view, doesn’t receive the recognition she deserves.  In a sense, she is the forerunner of the Samaritan woman at the  well of  Sychar who hurries off to tell her fellow citizens that she has encountered the Messiah!

Anna’s response to the revelation in the temple that day was to share the news with others.  “He’s come!”  May we be like Anna this Christmas Season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jerusalem’s Future, Our Future 

As 2017 draws to a close,  I like to read the predictions of the political pundits for the coming year, even while acknowledging to myself that many of their predictions have proven to be wildly ‘off the mark’ in the past and will no  doubt be so again.  It’s not only that their ‘insights’ turn out to be wrong, it’s what the political poohbahs fail to see in their ‘crystal balls’.  Who back in December 2016 predicted that anti-government protests would rock the Islamic Republic of Iran in the final days of 2017? None that I can recall.  Admittedly, when it comes to that part of the world,  it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen.  The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ is a case in point.

Seeing that even the expert prognosticators can be wrong at times, I myself was going to be so bold as to make a prediction for the coming year.  It involved  Israel’s arch-enemy, Iran.  But then protesters took to the streets across Iran and now it’s anybody’s guess how events will unfold in the Islamic Republic.  Will the Israel-haters who run Iran even be in place after this shake-up?

The prediction I was going to make had to do with Iran and President Trump’s Jerusalem Declaration.   But there are plenty of others besides Iran livid with President Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This, even after  Pres. Trump reassured them that US recognition of Jerusalem  as Israel’s capital did not impact boundaries or the current status of the holy sites.  ‘Over the top’ rhetoric  was to be expected and Israel’s enemies didn’t disappoint.   According to the terrorist organization HAMAS, Pres. Trump is “opening the gates of hell.”

If you read my previous blog, you will know that I support the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (you can read my reasons there).   Worldwide, however, there has been almost no support for Pres. Trump’s decision.  On 18 December, an Egyptian-drafted resolution rejecting Trump’s declaration was backed by 14 member states of the 15-member UN Security Council, failing to pass only because the US used its veto power.

On 22 December, the 193-member UN General Assembly was successful in condemning Trump’s move in a non-binding resolution which declared the US recognition “null and void.”  128 countries voted in favour of the resolution; 35 abstained; and 9 voted against it, with 5 of those 9 countries being small island nations.

Not to be left out, on 27 December, Israel’s fiercest foe, Iran, after calling Trump’s move a “declaration of war,” issued its own proclamation.  Iran’s parliament voted 270 – 0 in favour of a bill naming Jerusalem the “everlasting capital of Palestine.”  Iran, furthermore, has pledged all of the Islamic Republic’s military resources to help Gaza-based HAMAS fight Israel over Jerusalem.  It sounds like HAMAS, with Iran’s support, is  set to unleash that ‘hell’ for which Trump, supposedly, is responsible.

If Israel’s enemies unleash ‘hell’ in an attempt to wrest Jerusalem from the Jewish people, the consequences will be felt worldwide.  Jerusalem’s future is, ultimately, our future, too. There is such a day coming, writes  the Hebrew prophet Zechariah, who foresaw a time when all the nations on the earth would come against Jerusalem.  On that day, the LORD would make Jerusalem an “immovable rock” for all the nations, so that those who that tried to move the  “immovable rock” would themselves be crushed under its weight (Zec 12:3 NIV).

Not a pleasant note on which to end my blogging year!  And so I will end with a pleasant picture.

Israel Germany 2014 022

(A view of the strip between Yafo and Tel Aviv)

On my trip to Israel a couple of years ago, one of my favourite spots to frequent was  the promenade that runs alongside the shore of the Mediterranean between Tel Aviv and the city of Yafo (Jaffa).  I loved  to watch the people go by:  joggers; young parents pushing babies in strollers; people taking their pet dog for a walk;  older couples, moving more slowly, out for an evening stroll; people on bikes; and so on.  As I watched them go by, I couldn’t help but marvel  at the life they had created for themselves, despite the existential threat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trump’s Jerusalem Move: It’s About Time

I am one of those who applauds Pres. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  It is so right for a number of reasons:  it reflects the reality ‘on the ground’; it’s a sovereign nation’s right to choose the location of its capital; it fulfills a pledge made by previous American presidents; and so on.  But it’s also right for a reason that isn’t getting much, if any, attention in the media.  Trump’s move stands in opposition to those would-be historical revisionists who have cast the Jewish state as an ‘illegal Occupier’ with no historic ties, and therefore, no legitimate claim, to the city.

The attempt by Israel’s foes to rewrite history has taken the form of temple denial.  It began with Yasser Arafat in 2000, in the closing days of the Camp David Summit,  when Arafat told a shocked Pres. Clinton that the Jewish Temple never existed in Jerusalem.  Arafat’s successor, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, continued to sow doubt as to the Temple’s existence in Jerusalem.  In a speech he gave to the Arab League in Qatar in 2012, Abbas referred to “the alleged Temple.”

In their attempts to deny any historic connection between Jerusalem and the Jews, the historical revisionists have found a willing partner in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). On 2 May of this year, Israel’s Independence Day–the very day when Israelis celebrate the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948–UNESCO passed a resolution claiming that Israel had no legal or historical rights anywhere in Jerusalem.

Two months later, on 4 July, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee passed a resolution that referred to Israel as “the Occupying Power” and deemed all legislative and administrative measures enacted by Israel’s government in Jerusalem therefore to be “null and void.” To anyone who has ever been to Jerusalem, this statement must appear truly absurd.

I was in Jerusalem on Independence Day three years ago.   I headed  over to West Jerusalem that day to where the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is located.  Since it was a national holiday,  the Knesset was closed (to my disappointment) and there was no access to the grounds.

Knesset

(This is a photo of the Knesset taken that day.)

I spent the rest of the day  in the nearby museums which were awesome.

Museum of the Scrolls

(This is a photo of the exterior of the Shrine of the Book taken by my husband that day.  The Shrine of the Book is where the renowned Dead Sea Scrolls are located.  As worthwhile as the Dead Sea Scrolls were to see,  I particularly enjoyed viewing the oldest biblical manuscripts in existence.  An absolutely captivating museum!!!)

Model Temple

(outside the Israel Museum was a model of the Jerusalem Temple.)

In a further attempt to erase all historic connection of the Jews to Jerusalem, UNESCO has issued documents which refer to the Temple Mount solely as al-Aqsa mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif and to the Western Wall as Buraq plaza (April 2016).  Most non-Muslims don’t even recognize the name ‘Buraq’.  The name al-Buraq meaning ‘lightning’ was the name given to the ‘heavenly steed’, the white donkey-like, winged creature that Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad rode when he travelled between Mecca and Jerusalem on his night journey (isra) and when he travelled up into heaven (miraj).  

I have always wondered why Christian leaders don’t take a more vocal and forceful stand against the Temple-deniers, since Palestinian revisionism not only attempts to erase any Jewish presence in Jerusalem, but also attacks the veracity of the New Testament record.  In two days time, it will be Hanukkah when the Jewish people celebrate the purification and rededication of their Temple in 165 BC after it had been defiled by the pagan Seleucid general Antiochus Epiphanes.  The celebration is known by various names:  the Feast of Dedication (hanukkah means ‘dedication’),  as well as the Festival of Lights.  On that night back in 165 BC when the Jews were rededicating the Temple, they tried to light a 7-pronged menorah, but found  that there was only enough oil  to last one day.  Nevertheless, that small amount of oil, it was reported, lasted the full eight days.

The Gospel of John records that Jesus was in Jerusalem, in the Temple area, during one Hanukkah celebration  (Jn 10:22-39).  John tells us that Jesus was walking in Solomon’s Colonnade where he engaged in conversation with some Jews.  Solomon’s Colonnade was a covered porch of cedar held up by rows of columns 27 ft (8 m) high.  Such porches were located on all four sides and faced in towards the sanctuary.  Solomon’s Colonnade, the porch on the east side, was believed to date from Solomon’s time (erroneously) and hence its name.  Porches such as these, a common feature of Greek buildings, were used as places for teaching.  The Jews clustered around Jesus in the eastern porch wanted to know if Jesus was the Christ or Messiah (v. 24). Judas Maccabeus had freed them from the tyranny of the Greek Seleucids.  Could Jesus, then, be the messiah who would deliver them from Rome? Why would John specify that Jesus was in a certain porch in the Temple area if there was no Temple there?  Clearly, Temple denial affects Christians, too.

Let’s hope that Trump’s move sends a much-needed message that the Jewish people do have a right to Jerusalem, not least of which is an historic reason.

 

 

 

Is Lebanon Lost?

Evidence of Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon wasn’t  hard to come by as I travelled in the country a few years ago.  Visiting the world-renowned ruins of Baalbek,  for instance, meant entering Hezbollah-controlled territory in the Bekaa Valley.  On the way to the archeological site, I passed numerous yellow and green Hezbollah flags and banners, posters of Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah, as well as sundry Shia ‘martyrs’.  The women we passed along the road were all dressed in black:  a sign that we were in Shia territory.   I must confess that I was tense as we approached the checkpoint, but we were waved through without any problem.

Baalbek1

Columns of the Temple to Jupiter

The city of Baalbek had its origins in the 3rd millennium BC as a Phoenician place of worship to the god Baal.  In 47 BC Julius Caesar made Baalbek capital of his Roman colony here.  Over the next 200 years a succession of Roman emperors oversaw the construction on the site of temples in honour of Rome’s gods.  The columns in the photo above are what remains of a temple dedicated to Jupiter.   A trip to Baalbeck is a must-see for any visitor to Lebanon.

Baalbek2 (2)

Evidence of Hezbollah on the way to Baalbek  (I have no idea what the Arabic on the Hezbollah banners says.)

At the time I visited Lebanon, Hezbollah held sway largely in the Bekaa Valley. Today, Hezbollah, incredibly, is the most powerful member of Lebanon’s current ruling coalition.  How could this have happened?

The answer is, in one word, Iran.  The Shiite militia group hizb’allah, ‘party of Allah’, or Hezbollah, was formed in 1985, aided and abetted by the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a resistance group to counter Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.  At the end of Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990), Hezbollah was the only major militia allowed to retain its weapons, in spite of a UN Security Council resolution to the contrary.  In 1992, Hezbollah began running candidates for Lebanon’s government.  In 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon,  Hezbollah claimed the credit for driving the Israelis out.  In 2005, Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated by a car bomb.  More recently, Hezbollah has seen more than 1000 of its members killed  fighting on the side of Bashar Assad and Iran in the Syrian civil war.

Hezbollah’s influence only keeps growing, not just in Lebanon, but in the wider region. Hezbollah is working with Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, and is allegedly  arming and training the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen as well.  Returning the favour, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is said to be building underground arms factories right in Lebanon itself.  Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon now constitutes Iran’s most valuable proxy in the Middle East.

Is it still possible, even at this late date, to wrest control of Lebanon from the clutches of Shiite Iran?  That is what Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and his son Crown Prince  Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) appear to have in mind.  On 4 November, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh, pressured to resign (most likely), and is now being held against his will (allegedly).  It is believed that King Salman removed PM Hariri–a Sunni Muslim and a citizen of Saudi Arabia as well as Lebanon–because he failed to adequately deal with Hezbollah. Hariri’s ‘kidnapping’ is merely the opening salvo in a tug-of-war between the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran over Lebanon’s future.   There’s more to come, for sure.

Iran is very open about its ultimate goal:  the destruction of Israel.  I mentioned earlier how I saw signs of Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon.  I also saw signs of Hezbollah’s presence on the other side of the world, in Buenos Aires, in a park.

Israeli Embassy, BsAs (2)

On 18 July 1994, a Hezbollah suicide bomber from south Lebanon detonated a car bomb in front of the Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The explosion killed 85, wounded 300, and destroyed the building.  The scene of what was once a cruel terrorist attack on innocent people has been turned into a place of quiet contemplation.

Being Iran’s proxy in the region makes Lebanon extremely vulnerable in any coming confrontation with Israel.  When I was in Lebanon, I encountered people so opposed to the Shiite militia/terrorist organization that they literally spat out the name, “Hezbollah.” For their sake and Lebanon’s, I hope it’s not too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retracing the Footsteps of the Great Reformer

 

It was five hundred years ago today, 31 October 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Had it not been for the subsequent translation of these theses from Latin into German by someone unbeknownst to Luther,  the Augustinian monk’s action would likely have drawn little attention.  Instead, these 95 theses, translated into German, would prove to be the catalyst that would shake the medieval church to its very foundations.

The church of Luther’s time has been likened to one of those old buildings covered in ivy–in my view, an apt description.  We’ve all seen those ivy-covered buildings from the late nineteenth-century.  So completely covered in ivy are they that one can see nothing more than the windows and the door. It’s impossible to tell anything about the structure beneath all that ivy:  whether it’s a building constructed of red brick, or grey sandstone, or something else.  And so it was with the medieval church!  So many practices and beliefs, with no basis in Scripture, had grown up over the centuries. What Luther, and his fellow reformers did, was to ‘pull down the ivy’ that had obscurred the church’s true message;  salvation by faith alone (sola fides), by grace alone (sola gratia), and by Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus).

A few years ago I had the privilege of spending a day in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, as its now known.  The old university town is a great place for a walking tour because all  the important sites are easily accessible.  The prime site to visit, naturally, was the castle church door where Luther posted his 95 theses.  Why the door of the castle church? In Luther’s day, the castle church door functioned as the local university’s bulletin board.  In posting his list, Luther was calling for an academic disputation on the “power and efficacy of indulgences…”.

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This is the door of the castle church (schlosskirche), or All Saints’ Church, where Luther posted his 95 theses.  The 1517 door has not survived.  This is a later-installed door inscribed with his 95 theses.

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Luther’s grave is situated below the podium where he stood to preach.

One of the things I learned about Luther on this trip–something I hadn’t known previously–was that he was a talented musician who played the lute and possessed a great singing voice.  Putting his musical gifts in service of the Reformation, he composed hymns as well. After viewing the door of the castle church, I went to nearby Corpus Christi Chapel where I joined with others in singing Luther’s most well-known hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  The Reformation was spread not only by sermon but by song as well.  So thrilling to be singing this hymn in Wittenberg!   A Lutheran pastor–from the US–led the group in singing Luther’s hymn, then gave a Bible reading and short talk to the handful of English-speaking tourists there.

Not long after my day in Wittenberg, I made it to another place famous for its Luther-connection: Wartburg Castle, located on a hill overlooking the city of Eisenach.  It was here at Wartburg Castle where Friedrich the Wise (Elector Frederick of Saxony) hid Martin Luther, disguised as a certain ‘Squire George’, between 1521-22, thus keeping the reformer out of the clutches of the pope who would surely have had him executed as a heretic.  Anyone who offered Luther protection would be punished as well.  Anyone who offered him up, on the other hand, would be rewarded with a plenary indulgence.

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Hidden away in the castle, in a stube or room provided by the Elector, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek to German.  Luther had never seen a Bible until he was 20 years old, and that was when he came across a Latin Bible in the monastery library at Erfurt.  He was amazed to find “what a small portion of the Scripture was allowed to reach the ears of the people.”  To the reforming monk, scripture alone (sola scriptura) was the basis for right belief and practice.   It was a moving experience for me to see the room where Luther did his translating.

Luther’s wife does not receive the attention she should, in my view, for her story is a remarkable one, too.  Katharina von Bora had entered a Cistercian convent at an early age and took her vows as soon as possible. Become dissatisfied with her life in the convent, and her interest piqued by the new teachings (which may have had something to do with her growing dissatisfaction),  she plotted with eleven other nuns to escape:  an act punishable by death.  Even giving shelter to an escaped nun was a crime under church law.  Katharina contacted Luther, and he helped her escape in an empty fish barrel!  Luther found homes, marriages, or employment for ten of the escaped nuns.  When only Katharina was left, he married her himself in 1525.   To many at this time, such a marriage was scandalous.  For a monk and a nun to marry was nothing short of incest.

“Dear Kate,” as Luther called her, proved to be a wonderfully resourceful mate:  she managed the household, brewed beer, leased land for gardening, bred cattle, and gave birth to six children.  In marrying the resourceful ex-nun, Luther proved to those around him  that one could be a clergyman and a happy husband and family man, all at the same time.

No account of the life of Martin Luther can be complete without mentioning his hateful rants against the Jewish people in his later years, his legacy thus forever tainted.  That said, Martin Luther, flawed human being though he was, deserves to be acknowledged, especially today, for freeing those held captive by Rome and revealing once more “the glorious liberty of the gospel.”

  Portraits of Katharina von Bora and Martin Luther

Putin’s Russia: Friend or Foe?

I was all set to cross the Kremlin and Red Square off my travel bucket list last year.  The opportunity arose when I was invited to join a choir travelling to Latvia to take part in a choral fest.  Nothing against Latvia or Latvians, but when I said “count me in,” it was the possibility of a side trip to Latvia’s neighbour, Russia, that most excited me.   But it was not to be!   After learning that NATO forces had been stationed  in Latvia to respond to potential Russian aggression,  those in charge cancelled the choir trip out of safety concerns.

So quickly has the relationship between Russia and the West–and in particular the US–deteriorated that I doubt that I will ever see the colourful onion-shaped domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral or view the magnificent art collections housed in the Hermitage.

NATO troops stationed in Latvia to deter Putin’s Russia:  it wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Didn’t the Obama administration ‘press the reset button’ with Russia?  Who can forget the goofy red button episode in 2009, when Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov with a big red button inscribed with the English word ‘reset’ and the Russian word ‘peregruzka’–which actually meant ‘overcharged’, not ‘reset’.   It had been Pres. Obama’s idea, not Clinton’s, to reset relations between the US and Russia (although the idea for a big red button probably didn’t originate with Pres. Obama).  With two new heads at the helms of their respective countries–Obama and Medvedev–this was the perfect time to inaugurate a new era of cooperation.

Evidence of this new spirit of co-operation came via a ‘hot’ microphone.  In what was meant to be a private conversation  between him and then-Pres. Medvedev prior to the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, Pres. Obama can be heard telling Medvedev how it is important for Putin to give him [Obama] space; how after the election, his [Obama’s] last, he will have more flexibility.   In the aftermath of that conversation, a now more-flexible POTUS dismantled the US missile defense plans for Central Europe, and made a new arms treaty with Russia which allowed it to grow its atomic arsenal.

Further evidence of this new spirit of co-operation came with the Obama administration’s approval of a deal which saw more than 1/5 of  US uranium-mining capacity sold to Russia’s state-controlled nuclear energy conglomerate, Rosatom.

Given this history of co-operation between the Obama administration and Russia, it seems just a little rich for the Democrats to accuse Trump and his associates of ‘colluding’ with the Russians to swing the 2016 election in their favour.  The word ‘collude’ has negative connotations, of course.  It means ‘to come to an understanding or conspire together, especially for a fraudulent purpose’.  The word ‘co-operate’ on the other hand means simply ‘to work or act together’.  Was the Obama administration ‘colluding’ or merely ‘co-operating’ with Putin’s Russia?  The word one chooses has a lot to do with one’s political affiliation.

Pres. Trump and his associates are currently being investigated by the FBI to determine whether they colluded with the Russians to swing the 2016 presidential election in their favour.  Trump denies any collusion.  Putin–former head of the Soviet Union’s spy agency, the KGB–denies any meddling. Would he say otherwise?  Whatever the outcome of the FBI investigation, the relationship between Putin’s Russia and the US has been ‘reset’ to a low point not seen since the Cold War.  A trip to Putin’s Russia now?  Not very likely.