Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Night God Came to Dinner

Adapted from a story by Rod Ohira

Fritz Vincken owns a bakery just outside of downtown Honolulu. He dispenses warmth and a smile along with hot buns and fresh bread to his loyal customers. Fritz has lived in the Hawaiian islands for many years now, and when he first arrived he was enchanted by the kindness and goodwill of the Islands' people. When asked, however, he admits that for him, the ideal of aloha was first learned long ago - when he was a lad of twelve.

The setting was on the other side of the world from Hawai'i, on a harsh winter night in the Ardennes Forest near the German-Belgian border. It was December, and two months had passed since Hubert Vincken brought his wife and his son Fritz to a small cottage in the Ardennes Forest for their safety. The family's home and its eighty-eight-year-old bakery in Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle) had been destroyed in a bombing raid.

"We were isolated," Fritz recalled. "Every three or four days, my father would ride out from town on his bicycle to bring us food. When the snow came, he had to stop." His mother was concerned that their food was in very short supply, as the war seemed to be moving closer to their cottage of refuge.

By late December the cottage was no longer out of harm's way. German troops surprised and overwhelmed the Allies on December 16, turning the Ardennes Forest into a killing field.

On Christmas Eve, Elisabeth and Fritz tried to block out the distant sound of gunfire as they sat down to their supper of oatmeal and potatoes.

"At that moment, I heard human voices outside, speaking quietly," Fritz remembered. "Mother blew out the little candle on the table and we waited in fearful silence.

"There was a knock at the door. Then another. When my mother opened the door, two men were standing outside. They spoke a strange language and pointed to a third man sitting in the snow with a bullet wound in his upper leg. We knew they were American soldiers. They were cold and weary.

"I was frightened and wondered what in the world my mother would do. She hesitated for a moment. Then she motioned the soldiers into the cottage, turned to me and said, 'Get six more potatoes from the shed.'"

Elisabeth and one of the American soldiers were able to converse in French, and from him they learned news about the German offensive. The soldier and his comrades had become separated from their battalion and had wandered for three days in the snowy Ardennes Forest, hiding from the Germans. Hungry and exhausted, they were so grateful for this stranger's kindness.

A short time later that evening, four more tired soldiers came to the cottage. However, these men were German.

"Now I was almost paralyzed with fear," Fritz recalled. "While I stood and stared in disbelief, my mother took the situation into her hands. I had always looked up to my mother and was proud to be her son. But in the moments that followed, she became my hero."

"Frohliche Weihnachten," Elisabeth said to the German soldiers, wishing them Merry Christmas. She then invited them to dinner.

But before allowing them in, Elisabeth informed them she had other guests inside that they might not consider as friends.

"She reminded them that it was Christmas Eve," Fritz said, "and told them sternly there would be no shooting around here." These soldiers, still mere boys, listened respectfully to this kind and mature woman.

The German soldiers agreed to store their weapons in the shed. Elisabeth then quickly went inside to collect the weapons from the American soldiers and locked them up securely.

"At first, it was very tense," Fritz said.

Two of the German soldiers were about sixteen years old and another was a medical student who spoke some English. Although there was little food to offer, Elisabeth knew that everyone must be very hungry. She sent Fritz outside to fetch the rooster he had captured several weeks earlier.

"When I returned," Fritz recalled, "the German medical student was looking after the wounded American, assuring him that the cold had prevented infection.

"The tension among them gradually disappeared. One of the Germans offered a loaf of rye bread, and one of the Americans presented instant coffee to share. By then the men were eager to eat, and Mother beckoned them to the table. We all were seated as she said grace.

"'Komm, Herr Jesus,'" she prayed, 'and be our guest.'

"There were tears in her eyes," Fritz said, "and as I looked around the table, I saw that the battle-weary soldiers were filled with emotion. Their thoughts seemed to be many, many miles away.

"Now they were boys again, some from America, some from Germany, all far from home."

Soon after dinner, the soldiers fell asleep in their heavy coats. The next morning, they exchanged Christmas greetings and everyone helped make a stretcher for the wounded American.

"The German soldiers then advised the Americans how to find their unit," Fritz said. "My mother gave the men back their weapons and said she would pray for their safety. At that moment, she had become a mother to them all. She asked them to be very careful and told them, 'I hope someday you will return home safely to where you belong. May God bless and watch over you.'"

The soldiers shook hands and marched off in opposite directions. It was the last time Fritz or his mother would ever see any of them.

Throughout her life, Elisabeth Vincken would often say, "God was at our table" when she talked of that night in the forest.

Fritz eventually came to live in Hawaii and continued to carry this childhood lesson of brotherhood in his heart. He realized that being kind to one another and seeing beyond differences is a un iversal value, but he was surprised to discover that Hawai'i actually had a word for this ideal - aloha. When he thinks of aloha, he remembers that night long ago when everyone was welcome at the table.

For a theatrical version of this story, watch the Hallmark movie "Silent Night" with Linda Hamilton, who portrays Elisabeth Vincken.

The Gold and Ivory Tablecloth (aka "The Holocaust Tablecloth")

by Howard C. Schade

At Christmas time men and women everywhere gather in their churches to wonder anew at the greatest miracle the world has ever known. But the story I like best to recall was not a miracle -- not exactly. It happened to a pastor who was very young. His church was very old.
Once, long ago, it had flourished. Famous men had preached from its pulpit, prayed before its altar. Rich and poor alike had worshipped there and built it beautifully. Now the good days had passed from the section of town where it stood. But the pastor and his young wife believed in their run-down church. They felt that with paint, hammer, and faith they could get it in shape. Together they went to work.

But late in December a severe storm whipped through the river valley, and the worst blow fell on the little church -- a huge chunk of rain-soaked plaster fell out of the inside wall just behind the altar.
Sorrowfully the pastor and his wife swept away the mess, but they couldn't hide the ragged hole.

The pastor looked at it and had to remind himself quickly, "Thy will be done!" But his wife wept, "Christmas is only two days away!"

That afternoon the dispirited couple attended the auction held for the benefit of a youth group. The auctioneer opened a box and shook out of its folds a handsome gold and ivory lace tablecloth. It was a magnificent item, nearly 15 feet long. but it, too, dated from a long vanished era. Who, today, had any use for such a thing? There were a few halfhearted bids. Then the pastor was seized with what he thought was a great idea.

He bid it in for $6.50.

He carried the cloth back to the church and tacked it up on the wall behind the altar. It completely hid the hole! And the extraordinary beauty of its shimmering handwork cast a fine, holiday glow over the chancel. It was a great triumph. Happily he went back to preparing his Christmas sermon.

Just before noon on the day of Christmas Eve, as the pastor was opening the church, he noticed a woman standing in the cold at the bus stop. "The bus won't be here for 40 minutes!" he called, and invited her into the church to get warm.

She told him that she had come from the city that morning to be interviewed for a job as governess to the children of one of the wealthy families in town but she had been turned down. A war refugee, her English was imperfect.

The woman sat down in a pew and chafed her hands and rested. After a while she dropped her head and prayed. She looked up as the pastor began to adjust the great gold and ivory cloth across the hole. She rose suddenly and walked up the steps of the chancel. She looked at the tablecloth. The pastor smiled and started to tell her about the storm damage, but she didn't seem to listen. She took up a fold of the cloth and rubbed it between her fingers.

"It is mine!" she said. "It is my banquet cloth!" She lifted up a corner and showed the surprised pastor that there were initials monogrammed on it. "My husband had the cloth made especially for me in Brussels! There could not be another like it."

For the next few minutes the woman and the pastor talked excitedly together. She explained that she was Viennese; that she and her husband had opposed the Nazis and decided to leave the country. They were advised to go separately. Her husband put her on a train for Switzerland. They planned that he would join her as soon as he could arrange to ship their household goods across the border. She never saw him again. Later she heard that he had died in a concentration camp.

"I have always felt that it was my fault -- to leave without him," she said. "Perhaps these years of wandering have been my punishment!" The pastor tried to comfort her and urged her to take the cloth with her.
She refused. Then she went away.

As the church began to fill on Christmas Eve, it was clear that the cloth was going to be a great success. It had been skillfully designed to look its best by candlelight.

After the service, the pastor stood at the doorway. Many people told him that the church looked beautiful. One gentle-faced middle-aged man -- he was the local clock-and-watch repairman -- looked rather puzzled.

"It is strange," he said in his soft accent. "Many years ago my wife - God rest her -- and I owned such a cloth. In our home in Vienna, my wife put it on the table" -- and here he smiled -- "only when the bishop came to dinner."

The pastor suddenly became very excited. He told the jeweler about the woman who had been in church earlier that day. The startled jeweler clutched the pastor's arm. "Can it be? Does she live?"

Together the two got in touch with the family who had interviewed her. Then, in the pastor's car they started for the city. And as Christmas Day was born, this man and his wife, who had been separated through so many saddened Yule tides, were reunited.

To all who hear this story, the joyful purpose of the storm that had knocked a hole in the wall of the church was now quite clear. Of course, people said it was a miracle, but I think you will agree it was the season for it!

True love seems to find a way.

Monday, December 13, 2010

This Should Offend Everyone

There were 3 good arguments that Jesus was Black.
1. He called everyone brother
2. He liked Gospel
3.He didn't get a fair trial

But then there were 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was Jewish.
1. He went into His Father's business
2. He lived at home until he was 33
3. He was sure his Mother was a virgin and his Mother was sure He was God

But then there were 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was Italian.
1. He talked with His hands
2. He had wine with His meals
3. He used olive oil

But then there were 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was a Californian.
1. He never cut His hair
2. He walked around barefoot all the time
3. He started a new religion

But then there were 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was an American Indian.
1. He was at peace with nature
2. He ate a lot of fish
3. He talked about the Great Spirit

But then there were 3 equally good arguments that Jesus was Irish.
1. He never got married..
2. He was always telling stories.
3. He loved green pastures..

But the most compelling evidence of all ~3 proofs that Jesus was a Woman.
1. He fed a crowd at a moment's notice when there was virtually no food
2. He kept trying to get a message across to a bunch of men who just didn't get it
3. And even when He was dead, He had to get up because there was still work to do

Can I get an AMEN!?!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Random Chanukah Thoughts

I wish that I could celebrate Chanukah, and other Jewish holidays too. I suppose that there is nothing really preventing me from doing it except my own ignorance of the holiday and laziness. Despite my belief that we have Jewish heritage, we’re Protestant and have never observed the holiday. I know some about it but not nearly enough to celebrate it properly. There is a Messianic Synagogue in town and we have attended it and could probably celebrate it with them, but the last few Saturdays have been too hectic to visit.

Thanks to my Mom, I first learned about Chanukah when I was a teenager. She had heard about it from my Grandma. Actually, the word “Chanukah” wasn’t mentioned at all; we called it the story of the Maccabees. Where Grandma picked up the story of the Maccabees, I don’t know, but early on in my parents’ marriage, she shared the story with my Mom. Then later on Mom passed it on down to me. When I started doing research about Judaism I learned that Chanukah was the result of the Maccabees. Not only that, I discovered that Chanukah was not the Jewish version of Christmas, as I had thought. It was a holiday that proceeded Christmas by several hundred years.

I wish my church, and all Christian denominations, observed Chanukah and the other Jewish holidays. I mean there is more of a Scriptural basis for the Jewish holidays than there are for the Christian ones. Jesus really wasn’t born on December 25; the 25th was originally a pagan holiday and the early church replaced that holiday with “Jesus’ birthday.” Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and I do my best to remember Christ at this time of year. But I think adding Chanukah and the other Jewish holidays to our “Christian” calendar would increase our understanding of the Bible and the Jewish roots of our religion.

Whenever I study about Judaism, I feel closer to Christ. He was a Jew; He celebrated Chanukah, Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, etc. I think Chanukah ought to be as respected and as valued as Christmas. Whenever I spot a menorah in someone’s window, I think “right on.” It’s something to be proud of and I wish that I could share in that pride.

Oh well, maybe we can celebrate it next year. Have a Happy Chanukah!