Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Lutheran Pilgrimage

The Friday before last, the assistant principal came up to me and asked me if I would mind going to Germany with some religion seminar students and students at the theological school. "Would I mind?" I respond. "Yeah, I'd mind. I'd love to go."

So, the trip left last Wednesday morning at 7 a.m. Thankfully, I was only responsible for four students (see right).

After several hours in the car, we arrived at our first destination, Dresden, which was controversially bombed by the Allies during World War II. Somewhere between 24,000 and 40,000 people were killed. The only place we visited was the Church of our Lady, a Lutheran church that recently reconstructed after it was destroyed only by the fire after the bombing. It is said that each bomb that hit the church bounced off of the roof. While rebuilding the church, they were able to use some of the old stones from the destroyed church. They attempted to recreate the church as close to the original as possible.

We were only in Dresden for about an hour before we had to leave. We rode in a bus for another four hours before arriving at our final destination for the night, Allmanhausen. I don't know the technical term for the place we stayed, but it was a mixture of a youth hostel and a youth center. During the day, the place was used for youth to come and have a place to "hang out." They served very large meals, which was much appreciated. The first night, at 10:30 p.m., we were greeted with a glass of champagne and a plate full of sausages.

The following morning, we woke, had breakfast, and went to the Wartburg Castle. Like many castles, it stood upon a large hill and I imagined Luther riding up to the castle as Knight George, saying, "Well, if they find me here, there is no escape." This idea got me thinking about hiding places in general. Hiding is often the final option. Usually there are not escape routes from the places you escape to.

Not much of the castle was devoted to Luther; however, we did get see his study. It was a small room with nothing but a stove, a desk, a chair, and a picture of Luther as Knight George. I tried to imagine Luther sitting in that chair, translating the Greek Bible into German on that desk. Obviously the desk and the chair are newer than 1521, but something needed to be there. I imagined Luther throwing ink at apparitions of the Devil. One of my favorite pictures of the entire trip was of a drawing in Wittenberg in which Luther is translating the Bible at Wartburg and the Devil, hidden under the desk, is holding up a picture of a pope's hat and a naked woman. Luther looks very sternly at the Devil.

Upon leaving Wartburg Castle, we travel to the Eisenach Luther House and a Bach House. The Luther House in Eisenach was rather unimpressive. The exhibition was small and the tour was short and general. Everything the tour guide told us we already knew. The Bach House, on the other hand, was more impressive. The tour guide played Bach pieces on ancient instruments. So we could relax and hear the music of Bach.

The next day we traveled to Jena to some German seminary students. They took us around the city and told us a bit about Christianity in Germany. I learned that in Germany, there is a religious tax. To declare yourself a Christian, you have to pay a tax to the government. In Germany then, 1/3 of the people are Protestant, 1/3 Catholic, and 1/3 undeclared. Perhaps people do not want to declare a religion just so that they do not have to pay the tax.

In the evening, we traveled to Erfurt, where Luther became an Augustinian monk. At the church there, we heard an interesting story. The place where Luther prostrated himself, taking his vows as a monk ("I will be the best monk that I can") were taken over the grave of a man who was important in sending Jan Hus to be burned at the stake. Before Hus died, he said, "They will roast a goose now, but after a hundred years they will hear a swan sing, and him they will have to endure." Hus means "goose." So a hundred years after Hus was killed, Luther, whom they call the "swan," "sang" his vows as a monk in Erfort.

The following morning we traveled to the site of the 1525 Peasant's Revolt led by Thomas Muntzer. At this site is a panaromic painting of the battle. This painting was very impressive and I wish that I could have taken pictures of the painting but none were allowed to be taken.

In the afternoon, we went to Eisleben, where Luther was born and died. Here, we saw another Luther House. This one was on par with the first as the tour guide didn't seem to excited about her job.

At night, we traveled to our final destination, Wittenberg. An ELCA center exists in Wittenberg that helps people set up tours to see Luther's sites. It was nice to meet people from my country.

The following morning, we attended a church service at the Castle Church, where Luther posted his 95 Theses. The students complained about not being able to understand the whole service because it was in German. My only reply was, "how do you think I feel going to chapel in Slovak?" The Castle Church is the home of Luther and Melanchthon's bodies. After the service, I got to walk out of "The Door" (it's a new door now with the 95 Theses engraved on it).

After church, we had lunch with more German seminary students and saw another Luther House. This Luther House was the best of the three. It had the most artifacts and information. In the evening, we attended an organ concert at the Castle Church.

The following morning, we had a tour of Wittenberg, which included the church where Luther preached. Surprisingly, this church was smaller or seemed less important than the Castle Church. The Castle Church was the church that belonged to the university where Luther taught.

That afternoon we traveled back to Bratislava. I appreciated the trip because I could touch the sites of part of my heritage. I had always been fascinated by Luther ever since I heard about him going crazy in his monastery cell. What was this guy like? Where did he live? What make him the way he was?

As I wandered around these cities, observing Luther's sites and pictures of Luther and cakes with the Luther Cross iced on it, I began to wonder, "What would Luther say about all this?" I have a hard time imagining Luther accepting the fact that statues were created for him and houses made into museums for him. I have a feeling he would say something like, "You're wasting space. I have only done what anyone should have done and did try to do." Perhaps maybe this is what I would just hope that he would say. With that thought in my mind, perhaps I shouldn't be so fascinated by the guy as I am.

All in all, if you want to see Luther's sites, contact the ELCA Wittenberg Center and they will help you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Last Saturday, the half of the fifth-year students celebrated their Stužková. To explain Stužková, we can say it is a mixture of prom, graduation, and parent's night.

The night began around 6:30 p.m. when the students entered into a reception hall in dresses and suits. Each of their names is called and each of them go to receive a green ribbon from their class teacher. This ribbon, I believe, symbolizes hope for the students in passing their exit exams. They are congratulated by their class teacher, the god teacher, and the vice-principal. The class teacher is the teacher who checks their grades and attendance over the five years. The god teacher is something like a god parent, we might say.

Then the select students give speeches to their families and the teachers, and then the class teacher gives a speech, and then a parent gives a speech. Fortunately, I seated myself next to a Slovak colleague who could translate these speeches for me.

After the speeches, the students dance with a parent and then dance with a teacher. We had to dance a waltz, and I had never waltzed before. So, prior to going to the reception hall, I had someone teach me how to waltz in three minutes. I was excited to show off my skills. Nevertheless, when I walk on the dance floor with the student who was supposed to dance with me, she says, "You don't have to waltz. We can just move from side to side." This was a real heart breaker. Imagine me standing up there ready to show off my skills and she tells me to just move from side to side.

Finally, after all the speeches and dances, we got to eat. It was past 8 p.m. The food was delicious. Dinner began with an appetizer: ham and whipped cream. When I think of good appetizers, I think of ham and whipped cream. Then we had soup, followed by chicken and rice. I was satisfied with the meal. I'm not a good person to ask about how good food is though because I'll eat anything.

After dinner was an informal program. The students performed many skits, dances, and songs. A few stood out. First was "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2" by some students. The teachers said to each other, "Well, they don't need no education. So I guess no school on Monday then." The next was eight-person "song" routine in which one person begins the "song" by saying, in Slovak of course, what his job is like and then the next person follows but the first person continues as well. Imagine something like "Twelve Days of Christmas" but each day of Christmas is said at the same time. The best was probably the belly-dance routine. If you cannot see in the above picture, I am wearing a pink tie. I planned on wearing a blue tie, but I encourage by my friends to wear a pink tie. So I did. Nevertheless, a few of the students gave me a hard time about the tie. They said it looked "homosexual." Ironically, not a half-hour later, one of them was belly dancing in girl's clothes. Their dance was rather humorous and I made sure to point out the hypocrisy in what the student said earlier. Perhaps the student have learned something about stereotypes and the neutrality of colors through this experience.

The informal program did not get over until after midnight, when a second dinner was waiting for us outside. The only thing better than dinner is having two dinners. The second dinner was similar to the first, but I didn't mind at all. After the second dinner was the dance which began around 1 a.m. and ended around 5 a.m.

My roommate Larry was able to dance the entire four hours, non-stop; however, I was not this strong. I have to commend the guy. He's 61 years old and danced longer than anyone else, and, to put an exclamation point at the end of the sentence, he did all this dancing after losing his big toenail during the dance. How does that happen?

At around 4 a.m., the DJ said the dance was over. Then the students started a chant which began with "one more song" and continued to "two more songs" and "three more songs" and so on until the DJ continued playing music. He stopped at 5 a.m. I was dead tired. As I looked around the dance floor, I noticed the number of students was doubled by the number of teachers. How does that happen? We're old. They're young.

The dance part was nice because not all of the students danced and I had an opportunity to talk with them. With some of the students, I talked about the differences between prom and Stužková. This was an interesting conversation because one of the students studied in Canada the previous year and then got to experience both of these. From my observation, prom is very individual and Stužková is about the particular class of students as a whole. At Stužková, no one has a date. Their boyfriend or girlfriend might have been invited to sit with their family, but they do not come as a couple.

I finally returned home at 5:40 a.m. The students were very thankful that we stayed with them until the end. My experience with Stužková is not over, however. Two weeks from now, I will get to celebrate with the other class. There's nothing I enjoy more than staying up until 5 a.m. with a bunch of students.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Crazy Professor Lichtenberger Makes A Funny

Yesterday, I conducted a simple vote with my 3rd-year students, who study American Literature, asking them to write down which candidate they would vote for president if they could. As I expected, the majority of the students chose Obama. While talking about the election, I tried to remain neutral, pointing out the good and bad in each candidate. These students tend to develop their own opinions anyway.

Coming into class today, many of them were very excited about the outcome.

"Professor, Barack Obama won," one of the girls exclaimed.

"I am so excited that an African-American will be president," another noted.

Flashback in time. Early this morning, I attended an election party hosted by the American Embassy at a hotel in Bratislava. Unable to sleep, I woke up at 2 a.m. The event began at 9 p.m. the previous night, but I told myself I would attend if I woke up early in the morning. After laying in bed for nearly two hours, trying to decide whether getting up was worth it or not (wee hours are difficult), I crawled out of bed when my cell phone rang with my friends calling to tell me to join the election party. So, tired and a bit frustrated with a lack of sleep, I walked over to the hotel. On a ten-minute walk through the Old Town, I saw a total of three people. And people have dubbed Bratislava "Party-slava." Where do they get this idea from?

My frustation grew when I reached the hotel and approached the sign-in desk. After slowly spelling my last name and repeating it numerous times (as you can imagine, with a last name like "Lichtenberger", this process is expected but still annoying), the hosts told me to pick a button from a box partitioned in two. The buttons said "I support Obama" or "I support McCain."

Not noticing any other buttons, neutral, "Proud to be an American," or "I'm Just Here for the Free Food" buttons, I said, "I'd rather not wear a button, actually," First, I despise buttons; they put holes in clothes. Second, the candidate I supported was my own business.

"But you must wear one so that the security guards know that you are here for the election party," they responded, probably thinking this was a clever way to identify partygoers.

Recalling the time, 4 a.m., and that no one was in the lobby and no one stood between the host desk and the security guards, I desperately desired to defy them: "I think it will be okay if I go without a button and you just wave at them to say that I can enter."

Nevertheless, I decided to play the game. So looking into the box, I asked, "May I at least take both then?" Considering the time and the event ending in two hours and the number of buttons left, I figured they would let me. Not so. Upon taking a button, I walked 20 feet from the desk to the security guards, showed them the button, and put it in my pocket. I'm such a rebel.

I had imagined Obama would win the election; however, sitting in front of the television watching CNN announcing Obama would be the next president and listening to him speak in front of a crowd in Chicago, I began to wonder, "Is this really happening?"

I must be honest. At times, I have a slight affection for '90s rap. Ninety-five percent of the time, I despise the lyrics, the mistreatment of women and the language; however, every once in a while, I recall a song about social or racial injustices that I find particurally important. In one of these songs, an artist says, "We ain't ready to see a black president." Well, ready or not, here he comes.

Back in the classroom, thinking of the events of earlier this morning, I said to the class, "It is really amazing the changes that have occurred in the United States in the last fifty some years from the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement to today. I am pleasantly surprised."

Then, considering the race relations in Slovakia, I announced, "Someday, a gypsy will be president of Slovakia."

Nearly everyone in the class began to smirk and laugh. "A gypsy, president of Slovakia?" They questioned. "You're kidding. Professor, gypsies are different from blacks. They are lazy."

"Yes, this is true: they are different," I replied. "But all the same, someday, a gypsy will be president of Slovakia. Maybe not next year, or in five years, or in ten years, or in fifty years, but, in your lifetime, a gypsy will be president of Slovakia. A similar thing would probably have happened in classrooms in America fifty years ago if you said a black person would be president. So, you remember this day. You remember that crazy Professor Lichtenberger foretold this event years before it happened, and remember that you laughed."

People, ideas, and time all change in unexpectable ways. My students are just kids (I'm a pretty big kid myself, too) and must be reminded of the nature of life. I can only hope that the outcome of the U.S. election can play an important role for these people, my students and the citizens of this country I am learning about, not because of Obama's policies or popularity or what he will do, or won't do, as president, but because of the barriers that exist between people which are continuing to fall. I try to remember that by no means are race, social, or gender relations perfect now or even in the near future.

Jung developed the theory of Collective Unconscious, the idea that there exists a knowledge that is common to all people. Some would say through this theory that when one person discovers something, it becomes infinitely easier for someone else to discover this same thing. Whether this theory is a reality does not matter. It is similar to something Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, just as injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, a victory over injustice anywhere is a victory over injustice everywhere. Like as a smile is contagious in a crowd, perhaps the development of people is a benevolent infection that crosses oceans.

Be it in five years, ten years, or fifty years, I look forward to the day when I turn on my computer and hear that a gypsy is president of Slovakia. I like to imagine my students having children and telling them about crazy Professor Lichtenberger, his beard, and how he said a whole lot that they didn't quite comprehend then but, after years of consideration, finally understood.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Sedlec Ossuary

Our school had Thursday and Friday of this week off for Fall Break. So, my friends Amy, Jozi, Alicia, and I took a trip to the Czech Republic on Friday. The destination was the Sedlec Ossuary outside of Kutna Hora. My college buddy Josh had somehow discovered this church on the Internet and told me about it. The ossuary contains 40,000 - 70,000 human skeletons artistically arranged. These bones created pyramids, wall decorations, crosses, chalices, a coat of arms, and a chandelier among many things.

Stepping into the ossuary, I could hardly contain myself. "Holy cow, look at all the bones" is all I could say. It was difficult not to laugh. After walking around the ossuary for a few minutes, I no longer saw humor in the situation but a fantastic message. "Death doesn't make any difference," said the handout given to us as we entered.

Walking through this ossuary was different than walking through a cemetery. In a cemetery, one only sees names, and sometimes pictures. In this ossuary, one only sees bones, and absolutely no names. Some of the bones were placed behind glass. These were the skulls of some who fought in the Hussite Wars during the 15th century. The others were undistinguishable.

"Each of these skulls belonged to a person who had a life," Jozi said.

What were their lives like? What was important to them? What were their names? Most of them died of the plague. Other than that, we know nothing. They are the nameless.

Yet, we see something. We see the effects of their actions. In death, we no longer live, but each of our actions and inactions are monumental and eternal. To influence the world, we need not run for president, be a famous writer or celebrity, or invent a new technology that changes the way we live. To influence the world, we need not do anything. We have already influenced and are still influencing the world. Who knows how far-reaching are our actions? We might develop an idea that travels worldwide. We might teach someone something. We might even do something as mundane as raise children effectly. Or we might just do nothing. Even this inaction is action.

Even in these people's deaths, these nameless bones are still communicating this message. But we can take this message further. Though on the outside we appear different, on the inside we are the same. We consider ourselves so different but we are 99.9999% the same. We live through similar experiences but we see ourselves are unreachably different. We're the same species. Isn't that enough?

Though this ossuary might be considered scary. Full of millions of bones, this ossuary might give someone the hibbie-jibbies, especially on Halloween. After walking out of the ossuary, we could only see bones in everything.

Nevertheless, the scary factor was completly outweighed by the message. The entire time I had a verse from Paul in my head: "Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Not death nor life." What an amazing verse to contemplate during this visit.

When we were leaving the ossuary, I told my friends that I did not want to be buried in a casket but wanted my body to be useful for something. Alicia took the seriousness out of me. "Okay, we will just drap your body over a chandelier at the Lyceum." I'm glad someone was a little lighthearted than myself.

Thanks to Josh for recommending this place to me.