Our Sabbatical has been most rewarding and fulfilling, exceeding all of our expectations, but it has come time to bring it to a close. When I first started planning for this Sabbatical over two years ago, I started looking at river cruises.
We took our first river cruise a few years ago from Prague to Budapest on the Danube. River cruise ships are so much smaller than big ocean cruise liners. You have all the amenities of the larger ships and can often dock in the heart of towns and cities. Smaller ships allow you to get to know your fellow passengers and the crew. I looked at several options but settled on the Elbe River, primarily because the Elbe flows through Wittenberg and the cruise concludes in Prague, one of the most vibrant and beautiful cities in the world. The Elbe also played a key role in the Second World War.
If you have traveled on a river cruise you are familiar with the locks that control the water flow. The interesting thing about this cruise on the Elbe was that we did not go through a single lock. Because of this the water level is totally dependent on the weather and this cruise, more than any other, is often cancelled due to lack of water. Robert and Martha Adams planned to take this cruise a few years ago only to have it cancelled at the last minute. They were able to do the cruise later.
The Elbe River also necessitates smaller ships. Most Viking ships have three decks and hold close to 200 people. The Elbe ships have only two decks. There were 93 passengers on our voyage.
It is fitting that our Sabbatical ended in Prague, home to Jan Hus. One-hundred years before Martin Luther, Hus was proclaiming many of the same ideas. Hus was greatly influenced by John Wycliffe and his proposals for reform of the Roman Catholic clergy. In 1402 Hus became in charge of the university chapel in Prague and became known for his fiery sermons that were preached in Czech, rather than Latin. Hus, like Wycliffe, and later Luther, believed that the sole source of authority in the church is Scripture, not the church and the Pope.
The church was in turmoil during this time as a result of the Western Schism which left the church with two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. (Avignon is another fascinating city we visited on the Rhone River Cruise) Then, for a brief period there were actually three Popes! The climate was right was reform and even revolution. Meanwhile the church was embroiled in a major political fight to determine who was really in control. Part of this battle involved the sale of indulgences to finance the campaign of Antipope John XXII against Pope Gregory XII. Hus, like Luther a century later, condemned the sale of indulgences and by so doing lost the support of King Wenceslas, who was secretly profiting from the practice himself. Without the support of good King Wenceslas, Hus left Prague and went into hiding, but continued to proclaim his ideas through writings.
In 1414, Hus was promised safety if he would travel to the Council of Constance to defend his ideas. Once he arrived the promise was ignored, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. One-hundred years later a young Catholic Priest named Martin Luther read the writings of Jan Hus and John Wycliffe and was greatly influenced by them.
We returned to Luther’s Wittenberg on Monday afternoon, June 3 and boarded the Viking Beyla. We were escorted to our spacious stateroom and our luggage arrived in just a few minutes. We enjoyed a lovely evening onboard the ship including a delicious dinner. The next morning, I stepped out on our veranda and kept hearing a familiar sound—a cuckoo. My first thought was that someone had a cuckoo clock, or someone’s alarm was sounding. But the more I listened I realized that this was actually a cuckoo bird that is found in Europe. We heard several cuckoos while we sailed the Elbe. They sound exactly like our cuckoo clock back home.
Even though we had already spent time in Wittenberg I wanted to take the city tour which included the Lutherhaus. I also wanted to hear our guide’s perspective on Luther. Our guide was very knowledgeable, but didn’t have much of a personality. I asked him a couple of questions that he basically ignored, but he did point out a store that sold “Luther socks,” so I ran in a bought an official pair of Martin Luther Socks that read, “Here I Stand!”
I was very disappointed in what our guide did not tell us in St. Mary’s Church where Luther preached over 2,000 sermons. He did point out that the pulpit in Luther’s day was on the opposite side of the church where it is now—a fact I did not know. However, there was one significant thing he pointed out before we entered the church that I had missed the week before.
On the back corner of the church building, 26 feet above the ground is a 700-year-old anti-Semitic sculpture of a pig. Dozens of “Judensau” or Jew Pig carvings existed in Germany between the 13th and 18th centuries. They are blatantly anti-Semitic and terribly offensive. This 14th century carving is so offensive that I don’t care to describe it in detail. The worst part of it is that after Luther’s death, one of his caustic anti-Semitic quotes was added beneath the carving.
This carving became even more offensive following the Holocaust. After the reunification Wittenberg became a primary destination for religious pilgrims and the town started to prepare for the huge influx of visitors in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Suddenly, this terrible carving was in the spotlight and there was a huge debate about what to do with it.
Many of the faithful wanted to remove it, not only because it was an embarrassment to the city, but primarily because “it grieves people because our Lord is blasphemed.”
The decision to leave or remove the offensive sculpture belongs to the church itself. It turns out that even before the end of Communist rule in the 1980s, the church had discussed the sculpture and had even consulted local Jewish leaders. The Jewish leaders and church leaders agreed that the sculpture should not be removed because as degrading and hurtful as it is, it is a part of a painful history that cannot be removed or forgotten.
As a result of the discussions, the church’s youth group decided to create a memorial plaque, and on November 11, 1988, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass when Jewish homes, synagogues, hospitals and businesses ransacked and windows smashed and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to Concentration Camps), the church installed a Holocaust memorial on the ground under the sculpture to counteract the “Judensau.” A representative from a local synagogue gave a speech at the unveiling.
The memorial is designed to not allow this history to be forgotten. There are four blocks with cracks in between that symbolizes a cross that wells up as a sign of guilt and atonement.
I see some similarities in this and the current debate in our country over Confederate statues. To simply remove a statue does not remove painful history, but there is more to the story that needs to be told. I have made a proposal concerning the confederate statue in Lexington. I feel that this is an opportunity to learn from our painful past, acknowledging guilt, seeking forgiveness, and working toward reconciliation.
We returned to the Viking Beyla and enjoyed a delicious lunch as we started sailing the Elbe. Our destination was Torgau that was instrumental in the early days of the Protestant Reformation. It was here, at St. Mary’s Church, that Martin Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora, is buried. We took a walking tour of the city after dinner. Torgau also played a key role toward the end of the Second World War. On April 25, 1945 that US and Soviet forces met on the bridge in Torgau in what became known as the “Encounter on the Elbe.”
This meeting was not accidental; it had been discussed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference and was carefully planned and orchestrated. The next morning, we were sailing up the Elbe when we saw a monument on the bank of the river with several flags, including a US flag. A quick Google search revealed that this was actually the site where US and Soviet troops met for the first time—accidently—it was not part of the plan. We were near the town of Strehla. Early on the morning of April 25 there was an unplanned encounter between US and Soviet troops. This is what the monument commemorates.
On Wednesday afternoon we arrived in Meissen which has a beautiful castle built in the 15th century. But Meissen is best known for its famous Porcelain factory. We toured the factory and had a fascinating demonstration on how the porcelain is produced. Then we had time to shop. Meissen Porcelain is some of the finest in the world, and the prices certainly reflect that reality.
We arrived Thursday morning in the beautiful city of Dresden. This is a German city where you could easily spend four or five days visiting the great museums and studying the intriguing history. At the peak of its power in the 18th century this was the capital of Saxony that ruled over most of present-day Poland and eastern Germany. With all of the grand architecture and the lovely arts, Dresden became known as the “Florence on the Elbe.”
We had a tour of Dresden on Thursday morning. The city was flattened during the Second World War, but today is a vibrant city that has become one of the most popular destinations in Europe.
In the heart of the city is the spectacular Zwinger Palace complex. One of the highlights of our tour was hearing the Glockenspiel on the Palace grounds. There are 40 Meissen Porcelain bells that played a lovely 3-minute melody. The sound is quite unique, much softer than traditional metal bells.
We also visited the Green Vault museum that houses some of the most remarkable and exquisite treasures in the world. We went from one amazing room to another full of diamonds, emeralds, and priceless jewels. The Semper Opera House is an awe-inspiring fixture in the heart of the old city.
Thursday night we returned to the Zwinger Palace for a beautiful evening of classical music in the gorgeous Wall Pavilion. The opulent setting and the gorgeous music made for a perfect night. We returned to our ship and marveled at the beautiful Baroque skyline of Dresden at night, a breathtaking and magical scene.
The next morning, we cruised up the Elbe through some gorgeous rock formations that have become known as Saxon Switzerland because of their beauty. Gigantic stones have been quarried from these mountains to build some of the grandest buildings in Germany. We gazed up at the Bastei, a 1,000-foot spectacle of tooth-like rocks connected by a footbridge. Later in the afternoon, we rode up to that peak and walked over that bridge!
Since we crossed the Glienicke Bridge (The Bridge of Spies) at Potsdam, we had been traveling behind the former Iron Curtain. Soviet-era buildings are easy to spot—they are plain, uniform, and depressing. But the impact the Communist era had on the lives of the people is not as apparent, until they open up and share their painful experiences with us.
A lady spoke on our ship the night we were in Torgau. She talked about the oppressive policies of the Soviets and how everyone lived in fear. She talked about how hard it was to purchase a car. One would be on a waiting list for seven years or more. Her father had waited seven years to purchase a car and when he finally was able to buy one, it had something wrong with it.
She shared with us that there was very little food. What they would buy would be old and often spoiled.
The Communists would read people’s mail. If someone from the west tried to mail money, it would disappear before it reached the intended recipients. There was an old joke (we heard this from two different people) of a man who wrote a letter in the spring to his relatives in the west. He wrote that he appreciated the weapons they had sent and he buried them in the back yard. The next day his back yard was torn apart and he happily reported that he could now plant his spring garden!
She talked about how the Communists controlled all the media, radio, television, and newspapers. However, from Torgau, it was possible to pick up a western television station in Berlin. In order to receive this station, you had to line your antenna in a different direction than the Communist stations. The town kept a close watch on the antennas and if your antenna was found pointed toward Berlin, you received a reprimand from the mayor.
She also talked about the fact you could not trust anyone. You never knew who was a spy—your neighbor, your best friend, maybe even a member of your family. Our guide in Dresden expanded on this when she shared painful stories from her Communist past. She did not know that her very best friend was actually a spy until after the reunification in 1989 when her friend simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
Our Dresden guide told us that 30 years of her life were wasted by the Communists. She was a person of faith. She said that if you hear the Communists would not allow you to worship, that was not true. But, if you did practice your faith by attending church, the Communists had their ways of punishing you.
She shared the heartbreaking story of her first day of school. She was six years old. The teacher called her to the front of the class and told the other children that this girl and her family still believed in superstitions, they believed in a God who could perform miracles. Then the teacher asked the little girl to perform a miracle for the class. She stood there humiliated while the teacher and the class laughed and ridiculed her.
She went on to tell us that she had no friends because of this. On the playground, at lunch, before and after school, she was always alone. But she excelled academically and was the number one student in her class.
The Communists would only allow the most intelligent students to advance in their studies. Even though she was the number one student, she was denied the opportunity to advance past the basic education provided to everyone. All of this was because her family attended church.
She also shared with us how the Communists would intimidate and scare people into becoming spies. If you did anything wrong, you were called before the authorities. They would threaten you by telling you something would happen to your children, or that your children would be taken away from you, if you did not cooperate with them.
She also talked about the brutal treatment they had received from the police, even after Communism fell. Many of the people who had been involved in public celebrations as Communism was failing were carried to the police department, forced to stand against a wall without any breaks—not even to go to the bathroom. The police would threaten, humiliate, and taunt the people especially if they urinated on themselves. As our guide told us about this inhumane treatment, we could hear the anger and the bitterness in her voice. Then she talked about forgiveness and as a person of faith she knew she was supposed to forgive, but she confessed she continued to struggle. We could all understand why she is still struggling.
We visited Prague on our Danube cruise a few years ago. There are places you visit and say, “Well, I’ve been there and done that.” There are other places you visit and fall in love with it, hoping that you can come again. This is the way we felt about Prague. The medieval architecture in the city is stunning, but the city is also a treasure for Romanesque, baroque, and Art Nouveau buildings. And the main square with the large statue of Jan Hus may be the most exciting square in all of Europe with centuries-old structures and the still-functioning Astronomical Clock that has been operating since 1410.
The people of Prague suffered greatly during the 20th Century. First the Nazis, then the Communists, but in November and December of 1989 thousands of people protested the communist rule that had oppressed them for over 40 years. It resulted in the peaceful resignation of the Communist leadership and the founding of a democracy. It seems Prague has been celebrating ever since!
Our ship docked in Decin and we said good-bye to the crew on Saturday morning before boarding buses and driving to Prague. We stopped at our hotel, the Hilton—a massive, modern hotel on the edge of the old city—and then started a city tour. We walked down the Vltava River and spent time on the historic Charles Bridge. The bridge dates back to 1357 and is now pedestrian only. Lined with statues, the bridge is always crowded with tourists listening to the musicians and purchasing artwork from local artists. We entered Old Town by walking through the Gothic tower at the end of the bridge that was built in the 14th century.
We made our way to the main square where a large crowd was gathering to watch the 12-noon performance of the Astronomical Clock. After lunch we made our way back to the bus and traveled to Prague Castle. Then we visited the huge St. Vitus Cathedral where King Wenceslas is entombed behind polished emeralds and stones. The grand castle that was the powerful seat of Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors is today the residence of the Czech Republic President, Milos Zeman.
The next morning, we purchased tickets for the city’s transportation system and rode the electric tram into the old town. We did some shopping and enjoyed some Prague Ham and sausages for lunch. We met a college age young man who was traveling through Europe for the first time. He was telling us where he was going and asking about our travels and especially what we had seen in Prague. When I mentioned the Jan Hus statue in the main square, he had seen the statue but had no idea who Jan Hus was. I couldn’t imagine someone coming to Prague without having at least a cursory knowledge of the great reformer. But my world is vastly different than his.
Jim and Beverly, Ashley and Gay left for home on Monday. Joyce and I stayed one more day. We took a subway Tuesday morning to the Old Town and crossed the Charles Bridge. We visited the Church of St. Nicholas, one of the most ornate and glorious churches in Europe. This eighteenth century church is a masterpiece of High Baroque architecture full of statues, frescoes, and paintings.
We celebrated our last night overseas with a lovely dinner in one of the most prominent Art Nouveau buildings in Prague, the Municipal House. This elaborate center is full of art and is the principal concert venue for the city. It was in this building on October 28, 1918, that the independent nation of Czechoslovakia was established. We celebrated our last night overseas in another significant historical venue!
We returned home on Tuesday but the Sabbatical was not over. We decided to spend the last week of the Sabbatical at the beach with our two youngest grandchildren. Thanks to the generosity of dear friends, we were able to spend a week at Myrtle Beach in their lovely condominium.
When our children were growing up, our annual vacation was a week at North Myrtle Beach. Ray Nance was excited to go with us because he has such great memories of going to the beach as a child.
On Father’s Day morning, Ray Nance, Sang, Ella Rae, Parker, Joyce and I loaded two cars and headed to Myrtle Beach. The roads have improved a great deal since we traveled to the beach over 30 years ago. The condo complex has a nice pool that the children have really enjoyed, and it is an easy walk, or car ride, to the beach. The most rewarding experience was seeing our grandchildren have fun.
Spending time with family was the perfect way to bring the Sabbatical to a close. We have enjoyed the beach, the pool, putt-putt, and good food. And I taught Ella Rae and Parker how to play Monopoly! We drove back to Lexington on Sunday to be back in time for Vacation Bible School.
How can I describe all that I have experienced during this gift of Sabbatical? On Sunday night in Prague Ashley and Gay joined us for a Czech Folklore Dinner. I signed up for this without any great expectations. But it was a delightful evening that exceeded all of my expectations.
We boarded the bus and rode about 45 minutes out of Prague, past the airport, into the beautiful Bohemian countryside and the small town of Cicovicky. We entered a large banquet hall full of happy voices, good food, and lively music. We were entertained by a trio playing a violin, dulcimer, and bass. They were all quite good, but the dulcimer player was amazing. Two talented dancers dressed in traditional Bohemian attire thrilled the audience with high energy Czech dances and even had a few members of the audience to join them. (Any rumors of me dancing in the Czech cannot be substantiated!). And there was a gifted young lady with a beautiful voice who regaled us with traditional Czech songs that have endured for generations.
One can sense the genuine sense of joy and celebration from all the Czech performers. The painful memories of Communist rule and oppression are still fresh in the minds of many. They understand and appreciate, much more than we do I fear, the blessing of freedom.
At the end of the performance, our soloist sang a moving song that touched everyone there. This song was not in the Czech language, but in English. You know this song very well.
“I see fields of green, red roses too; I see them bloom for me and you and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
You probably can’t hear that song without thinking of Louis Armstrong and his distinct gravelly voice, but as this young Czech lady sang with her charming Eastern accent, I thought; this is it! This is the compelling truth I have learned in my travels. It is a wonderful world!
Everywhere we went we met the greatest people who treated us with kindness and went out of their way to help. There was our dear friend Maria at the farmhouse in Tuscany who brought Joyce medicine when she became ill and the entire staff, from the owners to the woodcutter who celebrated her birthday.
There was the kind stranger in the subway in Berlin who gave us directions and when he found out I was a minister, he told us the sad story of Hitler silencing his grandfather, a Lutheran minister.
In Turin, Italy one morning I asked for two cups of coffee to take to the room. A sweet little girl went into the kitchen and returned with a beautiful pitcher full of hot coffee with matching cups on a silver tray. As she handed it to me she asked, “Is this okay?”
And then there was the little old lady walking down the sidewalk in Florence, Italy, when smoke was pouring out from the hood of our car and I stopped on a sidewalk in a panic. She was chattering away in Italian, trying to tell us where we could find a mechanic.
But one of the most powerful and dramatic acts of kindness came in a cathedral one day. I was walking around taking pictures while Joyce waited on a back pew. When I returned I saw that she was talking to a Catholic Priest. His niece brought him to Turin on a spiritual pilgrimage to see the Shroud. Joyce was telling him that we were also on a spiritual pilgrimage of Sabbatical.
The Priest smiled warmly as I approached him and extended his hand. As I shook his hand I said, “Hello Father.”
“No,” he said correcting me still shaking my hand. “It is not Father. You are my brother, my brother in Christ!”
“I see friends shaking hands, saying, ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’”
Did I tell you that it’s a wonderful world?