21 April, 2010

Risotto Revival

At some point this winter, my motivation to cook often and cook well decided to hibernate for an indefinite period of time. Claiming that I was too tired, too busy, or too poor, I fell deep into a rut of quesadillas, pita and hummus, and - gasp - PB&J sandwiches. In the last month I began to feel very discouraged about this. Where had my drive gone? Did it die along with Gourmet, that beautiful monthly source of inspiration delivered straight to my mailbox?

Whatever the excuses, enough is enough! I am starting to go crazy from lacking a creative outlet (a really delicious one, at that)...not to mention that once you get over the nostalgia factor, PB&J every day is just boring. Cheap, but boring.

So I gave myself several assignments. On the plane ride back from Germany, I promised myself that I would watch "Julie & Julia" in the hope that it would re-kindle my desire to know the joy of cooking. Mission totally, totally accomplished. I could almost smell the boeuf bourguignon through the screen...

Task #2: Invite a new friend over for a home-cooked dinner. If having a near-stranger come eat your food is not an incentive, I don't know what is. So tomorrow night, a girl I met recently at church is coming over, and I plan to prepare chicken with a white wine & rosemary sauce, rice (or couscous?), and sauteed spring vegetables...Perhaps a plum kuchen and whipped cream for dessert? No microwaving whatsoever.

Task #3: Come out of mourning for Gourmet enough to at least peruse other foodie mags, because apparently I depend on them. They're like my culinary training wheels...I need the inspiration and the support until I'm educated and confident enough to embark on my own independent experiments. Accordingly, this week I picked up the new issue of Cooking Light, the cover of which enticed me with promises of risotto and pizza recipes galore. I have a particular weakness for risotto...so $3 later, I stood in my kitchen preparing to coax bliss out of a cup of Arborio rice.

Risotto plays hard to get. It makes you work for the right to enjoy it - something that most foods today don't really require of us. Perhaps that is why I find it so intriguing. As the chicken stock comes to a simmer, I chop onions and carrots and stir them in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil for several minutes. It smells heavenly. Then I pour in the cup of Arborio. Risotto always strikes me as a "loaves and fishes" kind of meal -- I never quite believe that that little cup of rice is really going to multiply into several servings...Every time, it proves me wrong. The rice toasts for a minute, and then I add the white wine. Again, an aroma that takes my breath away. Smelling this dish as it cooks is almost more enjoyable than eating the finished product. Soon it is time to start adding the chicken broth, a ladleful at a time, and stirring constantly until each addition is absorbed by the rice. This is the long and tedious part of the job - but also rather fun. I challenge myself, daring myself not to stop stirring even though my arm is begging for a pause. The pot of chicken stock taunts me - every time I glance at it, it laughs, "Yes, five more ladles to go! Keep stirring!" But suddenly - finally - there is no more broth to add. As the last ladleful is absorbed I stir in asparagus, peas, and cheese. All these different raw components have somehow come together to form one beautiful, creamy, steaming dish of comfort. With the first bite I completely forget how tired I am.

This morning I awoke with a very sore forearm - Is it supremely lame to pull a muscle from stirring risotto? Probably. But that's ok. I'll have "sore muscles" for a while as I re-dedicate myself to cooking...but the pleasures definitely outweigh the pains!

15 April, 2010

Fear is the subtlest dictator. It will disguise itself as practicality, humility, or that greatest virtue, wisdom, until it has usurped the joy and peace of believing.

How to attain the faith of Peter while avoiding the folly of Icharus? There is wax in the wings...but I am told that some have walked on water.

08 April, 2010

Lessons from the Fatherland

"And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us..." (Acts 17: 26-27)

This is the longest post I've ever written...Hopefully you'll read at least some of it, because I am filled to bursting with excitement over what is happening in Germany, and I want everyone to know about it.

On 1 April I boarded a plane bound for Germany armed with few expectations and many prayers. I was one in a team of 8 from my church going to Berlin to visit, encourage, and learn from the people of Berlinprojekt. I asked God to teach me something of Himself, something of myself, something of the kingdom. As I waited in the airport I journaled: "I really want to come away from this trip awed by God, humbled by Him, knowing Him a little bit better. I also want to be given a clearer understanding of what role I might play in God's work in Europe. I've been wondering if this is where God would have me...I believe that if I have any "spiritual gift" (which the Bible tells me I do) it is hospitality. That is something I desire to cultivate and something which I believe could be of service to Europe's cities."

KARFREITAG (Good Friday) - Berlinprojekt rented such a beautiful space for the service. All exposed brick, exposed rafters. A jagged wooden cross was suspended from the ceiling over the speaker, lit so that its shadow was cast twice onto the dome above it.

The service was excellent. The readings, the music, the space, the fact that these people dwell half a world away from me but in this tongue I do not know they are worshiping the Savior we share. We sang a capella "O Haupt voll Blut und Bunden." 12 readings were given, drawn from a broad spectrum of authors, time periods, and styles. Bonhoeffer, Voltaire, Plato, John Stott...I was brought to tears by the final reading, which was Psalm 22 followed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's last words: "Das ist das Ende - fuer mich der Beginn des Lebens" (This is the end - for me the beginning of life."

Following the service we were welcomed into the home of Lydia and Friedemann, members of BP. They crammed all 8 of us plus 6 or 7 BP staff and members, and spread a tremendous feast before us with so much joy and generosity...despite having never met us. This was a glorious evening, especially given the fact that I had been reading and reflecting on hospitality on the plane, realizing that before I can truly show hospitality I must really know what it is to receive - to be the stranger in the strange land, to be the one relying on others for my daily bread...

SATURDAY 3 APRIL - Christian and Corrie led us on a tour of Berlin. We went to Alexanderplatz, the Berliner Dom, Museum Insel, the memorial to victims of totalitarian regimes, Bebelplatz, the parliamentary offices, the Reichstag, the Holocaust memorial, the Brandenburger Tor, Potsdammer Platz, and then back to Prenzlauer Berg for a meal at I Due Forni.

This day gave me some insight into the collective and individual psyche of the German people. Berliners are constantly surrounded by the past - the good, the bad, and the ugly - and cannot be other than conscious of it. The Fernsehturm looms menacingly over everything, sneaking into every photo and shattering one's attempt to enjoy sights like the Berliner Dom. It is a constant reminder of the Cold War...while Starbucks sells the holy water of capitalism in its base. Bullet marks riddle the surfaces of so many historic buildings. The colonnade in front of the Alte Nationalgalerie is rife with them, and the Neue Nationalgalerie is patched together with bricks where it was bombed out during the war. No attempt to cover the damage, or totally replace this building with a pristine new one. The material damage is there to remind everyone of the physical, psychological, and emotional havoc that man can wreak upon man.


The Holocaust memorial - I was not impressed as we approached but had completely changed my mind by the time I walked out of it. One of the reasons that the Holocaust was such a travesty was that the Jews were treated as nameless, faceless animals. I was bothered, then, when I first saw the memorial, by the fact that it is just rows of concrete slabs - nothing at all to put a name or a face on the tragedy. But I was not prepared for the impact of walking through those slabs. You walk through row after row of solemn, silent stelae and you think that you are alone - then quite suddenly someone you know walks in front of you, their path intersecting yours, and in a flash they are out of sight, like a ghost. You expect to see them again a few rows down. But they are totally gone and you are left surrounded by these grey walls too high to climb.

EASTER SUNDAY - We arrived at Kino Babylon just before 10 am. Christian met us and told us of a few ways that we could help with the service. I was asked, along with my teammate Warren, to help serve communion! More on that later. The service started around 11.15. The theater was packed. People of different ages and walks of life. The songs were all in German but were ones that we knew - "In Christ Alone," "How Deep the Father's Love for Us," etc. - so we were able to sing along with our brothers and sisters even if we didn't know each German word. This was so beautiful to me...It felt like a foretaste of heaven. To be able to sing together, and to see Germans singing with such passion. Kosta preached on "The Wonder of the Resurrection." Then came the Lord's Supper. This was an intensely moving, meaningful experience for me. Warren held the wine and I held the bread. It was so humbling and such an honor to look each person (a stranger to me) in the eye and say to them, "Christi Leib fuer dich gegeben" (Christ's life given for you). To tell them in their own language of what Jesus has done for them...And it is only because of His death and resurrection in the first place that I am even here at all to do so! And because of this same death and resurrection, even if I never see any of those people again on this earth, we will be together forever in heaven. (Not only that, but we will understand each other!)
Seeing this thriving 5-year-old church has challenged me: Never think that God didn't mean it when He said, "I am with you to the end of the age," or that the Scripture is wrong when it says that He is not far from each one of us. He has not abandoned the world, He has not abandoned Europe, He has not abandoned Germany.

Later that evening we spent several hours with Christian and Corrie at the BP office, talking, praying, brainstorming.
BP began in 2005 as a group of 11 friends meeting in Christian's apartment for what they called "sofa services." By Easter 2006 they numbered over 1oo, and now several hundred people meet weekly in central Berlin. BP has 4 target neighborhoods: Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, and Kreuzberg. Each has between 120,000 and 200,000 people. These 4 neighborhoods make up the "creative quarter" of Berlin, filled with young professionals, students, and creative types. Highly educated, dedicated to work, concerned with being a part of the right groups. These characteristics and the large amount of singles (Berlin has 3.4 million people, and over 50% of its households are single households) presents constant opportunities to mingle, network, and fellowship in a way that would be difficult or impossible if the demographics were different. In 2005, in these 4 neighborhoods there was not a single relevant or evangelical church. About 2% of Berlin's population goes to church on a given Sunday, and that is to state or mainline churches, which have really bought into legalism and existentialism. It is just unheard of for people in our age demographic - much less people who actually care about and are aware of the arts, culture, good restaurants, etc. - to be Christian. Some of the tension is cut off of approaching spiritual matters when BP can connect with people over these unlikely things.
BP wants to be a people who are living a contextual life, but who are also comitted to what they believe. Integrated into the neighborhood, but also theologically conservative/stable enough to be sustainable and to have something interesting to offer. "Be excellent in our jobs, maintain relationships and comittments outside of the church, and show the Gospel through all those things." An "incarnational ministry" that seeks to "speak the language of the culture."
People are not forced to commit to BP, but over time that freedom actually leads them to commit more and more because they want to and haven't been forced to. Christian said, "I don't feel the need to 'sell' the faith because it seems to have this magnetic effect on people - For the first time people are finding a place where they can be creative, be professionals, be Berliners - and be Christians, too. It's not as though to be Christian they must give it all up and enter some wierd subculture."
In 2007 BP started meeting at Kino Babylon, and in 2008 Daniel went to begin the Hamburgprojekt plant in Hamburg (more on that later). Last year BP planted a new church in the east Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg (you guessed it - it's called Kreuzbergprojekt). BP's denomination, the Evangelical Free Churches of Germany, has asked BP to re-plant a dying church in Friedrichshain this year, and candidates are being interviewed. In 2011 BP will plant a multinational church in Neueskoelln, the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Berlin. Lead by a German man and his American wife, both of whom speak Arabic and are educated in middle-Eastern affairs and culture, this church will focus on reaching Arabic and Turkish people. This endeavor has great potential to contribute something significant to a current dialogue simmering all over Germany regarding how to integrate people of different ethnicities.

Over the next 15 years, they would like to see 5 or 6 more churches take root in these 4 neighborhoods - Networks in these neighborhoods really tend to overlap, so if friends and colleagues are telling each other about a good service they've gone to, the churches will become a force that cannot really be overlooked. It could really change people's perceptions of going to church. Then, by pooling their resources, this family of churches can start addressing specific cultural problems over greater Berlin.

They focus on a grace orientation/grace motivation. "We want to talk 80% of the time about the character of God, so that the 20% of the time that we do talk about ethics we have a stronger appeal, because people want to know about life with the God they have fallen in love with." One example of a difficult doctrine is tithing. Germans have a hard time coming around to this practice. They are fine with giving toward a specific project or item...but regular giving and attendance, sexual ethics, or ministry involvement are areas in which it takes a lot of time for people to understand or be willing to try. I was really moved and awed by how much God has accomplished through them despite material needs...Since at present they can't depend upon enough regular giving from congregants, they truly do need US churches and individuals to come forward and support them with finances and resources.

MONDAY 5 APRIL - Fridtjof took us on a boat ride down the Spree to the east Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg. Fridtjof and Benjamin pastor Berlinprojekt's daughter church there, called Kreuzbergprojekt. Kreuzberg is in many ways a very troubled neighborhood. It has the highest percentage of unemployed young migrants in all of Germany. The majority of its inhabitants are Turkish migrants and their families. Lots of artists and activists make up the rest of the community. Each year on the 1st of May, protesters and activists gather in the central square and conduct huge riots against the police. It is their way of expressing their anger at the government and at the effects of gentrification on their neighborhood. Last year the riots were so violent that the police actually left the neighborhood - they were unable to handle the force of the protesters. Kreuzberg also has a thriving drug market. Imagine trying to raise a family -- or form a vibrant church! -- in such a place. But that is exactly what God has given Fred and Benne the courage to do. They started the church this year with a core group of friends from the neighborhood and will continue test services over the next several months, trying different things to see what sort of service format will be best. Benne and his wife Mirjam just moved to Berlin two months ago, and they are expecting their first child later this month -- so they are adjusting to a lot of change! Fridtjof and Benne led us on a prayer walk through the neigborhood. We prayed that this 1st of May will be peaceful. We prayed for Kreuzberg's artists. We prayed for the few churches already present in Kreuzberg, that God would fill them with leaders who are pure in motivation and strong in faith and teaching.

That evening our team treated the entire BP and KP teams to dinner at a great German restaurant. I sat next to Kosta, whom I hadn't really had much of a chance to speak with yet. I really enjoyed our conversation. He was very encouraging -- He asked me a lot about my church background, my studies and interests, what had drawn me to come on the trip. He was very encouraging as I told him of the passion I have long felt in my heart for Europe, but my uncertainty over whether such interest or desire can really indicate a calling. Quietly but with great conviction, he looked at me and said, "I really believe that God very often works through our interests, our desires, our passions, and that we should listen to these things. So you have the desire, and now you just need the opportunity." Yes. I have made this my prayer often since; Lord, you have created me with the desire. Please now provide the opportunity.

TUESDAY 6 APRIL - We took a train to Hamburg to spend the day with the Hamburgprojekt team. HP was planted by BP in 2008 and is pastored by Daniel and Dominic. They hope to follow the same model that BP has set; from their initial plant they hope to plant several churches in other target neighborhoods of Hamburg, then, by pooling their resources, address issues faced by Hamburg as a whole. One of Daniel's goals is to found a counseling, or "life care," center in the next 10 or 15 years.

I was completely taken by Hamburg. What a beautiful city - It is a harbor city, and it felt so very open and fresh compared to graffitied Berlin. It didn't hurt that the sun was shining gloriously for the first time since we'd arrived in Germany. We were met by pastors Daniel and Dominic, Daniel's wife Kathrine, HP intern Matthias, and Jens, a member of the church who has a love of Hamburg that he can barely contain -- He was thus the perfect tour guide. Friends, I wish that you could have seen the very special radiance which poured forth from the faces of these dearhearts. They simply could not stop smiling, and they spoke of thir city with energy and joy and love...I could only look on in wonder, basking in the glory of it all.

There were two particularly striking parts of the day that I will relate. We walked to Nikolaikirche, which is a sort of sister church of Coventry Cathedral - both were severaly bombed out during WWII. Nikolaikirche has not been repaired but instead stands as a ghostly memorial. Visitors can ride an elevator up the bell tower and look out over the city. We did this, and discovered that at the top there were photos showing the city as it looked after the Allies bombed it. I have heard all the explanations of the necessity of war, doing things for the greater good, etc. - but really? 40,000 civilians? I find it hard to accept that we did such a thing.
The other poignant experience was the walk down the Reeperbahn -- Hamburg's "red light"/entertainment district. It is a very confusing experience; concert halls and movie theaters line the same streets as brothels and nightclubs, so that on a given night the streets are filled with sweet old couples out for a concert, teenagers partying, and others patronizing prostitutes. The sex trade is in your face, everywhere, blatant. I paced that street with a broken heart, but also with a humbling realization of my own lack of courage; I would not have the brave sort of love to actually reach out to such a neighborhood, to try to be Christ's love to prostitutes. Hamburgprojekt is intent upon being a very present friend to this troubled neighborhood, and invest the time and the emotional energy into forming real relationships with its inhabitants.

Jens gave one of the most insightful talks of the whole trip. While we were at Nikolaikirche, he began to talk about the impact of WWII on the German psyche (individually and collectively), and how that has actually negatively impacted the church in Germany. Germany basically lost an entire generation of men; those who did return from the war were emotionally and psychologically finished. This meant that the next generation of children had no male role models, and the women were forced to stifle their emotions and take on the men's work, simply to survive. For decades no one talked about the war or dealt with its emotional fall-out. After a couple of decades, what Jens described as "an economic miracle" took place -- things were recovered enough that if you could have a house, a spouse, a car, and a television, you were set. You had a good life. Everything was based on these external measures of achievement or worth, while the inner person was not taken into account. Jens feels that this has had a huge negative influence on the church in Germany; buying into this way of thinking, the church has become very legalistic, paying more attention to your external deeds than to your entire person, including your inner motivations and emotions. Jens shared his own testimony, saying that he spent years in the wrong career, trying achieve success, not knowing how to deal with any of his emotional struggles (and not having anyone willing to counsel him, anyway, as no one really talked about such things). A couple of years ago he completely burned out and sunk into a deep, terrible depression. But he met Daniel and became involved with Hamburgprojekt, and was told of God's grace...He stepped back from his career and took the time to evaluate his life, to work through his emotional and psychological burdens, and found a safe place to do so in Hamburgprojekt. His words brought tears to my eyes: "Hamburgprojekt gives me hope for Germany. Because of this church, I have hope for all of Germany." Would that every church were such a faithful balm in the broken places of this world.

On Wednesday the 7th we had to leave. I could hardly bear it; I had only been there for five days, but I felt as though my heart and soul had melded to this place, these people, this work. I wanted to stay.

I am challenged. Challenged to actually DO something for the place in which God has put me. I don't know my neighbors, I go to the city for work every day and then I come home and relax with my housemates. My entire social life is within church circles. I am not putting into practice any of the things I say I believe -- and which BP is faithfully, faithfully living -- about spreading the Gospel through authentic, redemptive relationships with people in all walks of life, about sacrificial love for cities...In the coming weeks and months I will try to face this challenge and be a more faithful steward of the life I have been given in this place, at this time.

On another personal note, this trip confirmed what has been a suspicion of mine: I believe that I am called to Europe. It is not just an interest, it is not just some obsession that will fade in a month or two - It is a work for which God has made me. I really, firmly believe that now. The details? Well, those are for God to fill in -- I stand at attention with an eager, hopeful heart, ready to go when He opens the door again.

Oh, what spiritual curiosity is already present in so many Germans; there is indeed a seed planted there, ready for watering and tending.

...I suppose this would not be a real Ginny blog if I didn't also comment of the food! One of my favorite meals was a baked breast of guinea fowl with a honey and schwarzbier sauce, roasted vegetables, and tagliatelle tossed in walnut puree. Also good was sauerbraten with red cabbage. And our neighborhood was littered with ice cream parlors! A scoop of pistachio gelato is the perfect companion on the walk home from a good meal.

So, goodbye for now, Germany. I trust that I will see you again before long.
Back from Germany. A long post, with pictures, is coming. My word, how I wish I could've stayed.