In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Sunday, May 15, 2011

(Pennsylvania) Dutch Treat

Recently Melany and I were able to get away for a few days to that beautiful area known as the Pennsylvania Dutch country (for a good description of the geography, history, and culture of this area, click here; for a good tourist portal, click here) around Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was spring-break week for Melany, and since her school bus driving work prevented her from accompanying me on a family visit to Florida in March, she came up with the idea of this trip as something we could do together when she finally got a few days' vacation. It's remarkable how refreshing and fun a short road trip like this can be for a couple, at least when things go well, as they did on this occasion (and when they don't go so well, you treat it as a God-sent test of your patience, faith, and love!).

Armed with a GPS device that we received for Christmas, and which we'd never used before on a real road trip, we shoved off early Wednesday morning, April 20. We were blessed to escape the heavy rains that fell that day on western New York, and had a pleasant drive down New York State Route 17 and U.S. Route 15 through the Allegheny Mountains and along the beautiful Susquehanna River. We arrived at our initial destination, Ephrata, Pennsylvania, shortly after noon, couldn't find the local eatery we were looking for, and finally decided to have lunch at an Applebee's we happened upon (on a Christmas gift card from my parents--thanks, Mom and Dad!). With a couple of hours to spend before we could check into our nearby bed & breakfast, we headed to the cultural heart and namesake of the town, called Ephrata Cloister.

Located on several quiet, shaded acres at the center of town, Ephrata Cloister is one of America's oldest religious communities. It was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel of Eberbach, Germany, who fled the violent religious conflicts and persecutions of 17th-century Germany in search of solitude and closeness to God in the New World. He didn't find the solitude he was looking for; instead, like-minded people found him. According to a good Wikipedia article about the Cloister:
Around this charismatic leader a semi-monastic community (the Camp of the Solitary) with a convent (the Sister House) and a monastery (the Brother House) was established called Ephrata. The members of the order were celibate. In addition to celibacy, the members believed in strict interpretation of the Bible, and self-discipline. Members were required to sleep on wooden benches 15 inches (380 mm) wide, with wooden blocks for pillows. They slept six hours per night, from 9 P.M. to midnight, and from 2 A.M. until 5 A.M., with a two-hour break to "watch" for the coming of Christ. They ate one small vegetarian meal a day. The only time the followers of Beissel were permitted to eat meat was during the celebration of communion when lamb was served. The members of the cloister spent much time at work or praying privately. Services every Saturday were led by Beissel, often being several hours long.
That's quite the regimen! The "Solitary" brothers and sisters also wore nearly-identical white robes and slippers, indoors and out. There were other, more "normal" members of the community, however:
Other believing families [called "householders"] settled near the community, accepted Beissel as their spiritual leader and worshipped with them on Sabbath. These families made an integral part to the cloister, which could not be self-sustaining without them. The brothers and sisters of Ephrata are famous for their writing and publishing of hymns, and the composition of tunes in four voices. Beissel served as the community's composer as well as spiritual leader, and devised his own system of composition.
The community's "dormitory" buildings were remarkable, as they soar four and five stories high--quite impressive for their time! It's remarkable, too, that they've survived almost 300 years virtually intact.

The indoor working areas, where the members engaged in writing, printing, art work, and music, as well as ate and slept, were very cramped and spare.

One amazing find during a 1998 archaeological excavation at the site, and which I saw on display in a small museum at the Cloister, is a glass trumpet, apparently from Germany, and the only one of its kind in North America. Its excellent condition led archaeologists to believe that it was intentionally buried, perhaps sometime during the 18th century.

Here's another remarkable item: a slipper found in an upstairs closet in the women's residence, which apparently had laid there undisturbed for more than two centuries:

Late Wednesday afternoon, we left the Cloister and drove a short distance to our bed & breakfast, a beautiful 1795 stone residence called the Kimmel House. The place is beautifully decorated in early American style; the owners, Dave and Bonnie Harvey, haven't missed a detail! Our room was furnished with lovely Shaker furniture, including a four-poster bed with an exquisite handmade canopy. Each day began with a delicious breakfast cooked by Bonnie. We were the only guests on the two days we were there, so we were the only ones at the dining table, but Bonnie chatted with us gave us lots of help with our day's plans.

After settling in at the Kimmel House and taking some rest, we hopped back into the car and drove a few miles to the village of Bird-in-Hand, where we had dinner at the Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant. I chose this place based on my pre-trip Internet research, which has its limitations. It turned out that Plain & Fancy is housed in a rambling, rather modern building with an attached store full of made-in-China souvenirs, although there were some locally-produced items--kind of like a Pennsylvania Dutch-style Cracker Barrel, complete with non-Amish employees dressed in Amish-"inspired" uniforms! We could choose to eat "Family Style" and sit at a long table with other customers, passing around the plates, or personalized meals--we selected the latter. I was afraid that our meal was going to be as cheesy as the surroundings, but thankfully the food was very good and the service was friendly and capable. I had a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch meal of pork sausages (made on the premises), noodles with browned butter, pepper cabbage, dried sweet corn, and of course, shoo-fly pie for dessert! It was getting dark by the time we were done, so we drove back to the Kimmel House and relaxed in our room for the rest of the evening.

Following a marvelous breakfast Thursday morning, we spent a couple of hours touring shops in nearby Adamstown, Pennsylvania, known as the "Antiques Capital of the USA." Around noon we drove to the village of Lititz and visited the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery, the first commercial pretzel bakery in America (est. 1861). The "tour" was a bit disappointing, but we learned about pretzel history and how to twist a pretzel by hand, bought several bags of pretzels (one of my very favorite snack foods!) in the attached store, and even savored a couple of hot, soft pretzels for lunch! After that we poked into several craft shops in Lititz, then headed down the road a few miles to the village of Intercourse. We explored several more shops there, especially The Old Country Store and The Village Pottery where I bought a nice mug made by a local Mennonite artisan. Then it was on to dinner at the nearby Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant. In contrast to the Plain & Fancy Farm Restaurant where we ate the night before, the Stoltzfus place was located on a working farm in what was once a real farmhouse, unconnected with any store, and had a much quieter, more authentic atmosphere in a warm and inviting dining room. The meal was served family-style, but we arrived somewhat early and had a table to ourselves. Once again we had a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch meal, this time including ham loaf, sausages, fried chicken, pepper cabbage, chow-chow, potato stuffing, corn, and for dessert, shoo-fly pie (me) and pumpkin roll (Melany). The food and atmosphere were excellent--while we ate, Melany watched a little Amish boy out in the nearby fields playing with his dog!

After dinner, we decided to spend the remaining couple of daylight hours driving along the back roads through the countryside. This turned out to be the most interesting and fun part of our trip! Since the only printed maps I had of the area were pretty sketchy, our GPS unit was the only thing that enabled us to cut loose and still find our way back to the Kimmel House. As the sun slowly settled toward the horizon, we drove over and around the hills in the heart of Amish country, past many beautiful old farms--some with houses and barns obviously a century or more old (many of these places have been in the same family since the 1700s!). Family members of all ages and both genders were often out in the fields and barns working, even when the sunlight was almost gone. In these surroundings, seeing people live and work in the same clothes and using the same tools as people did two centuries ago, I felt transported back in time in a more compelling way than ever before!

We had two especially interesting experiences during this jaunt. We saw a group of mules or donkeys (I can never remember which is which) cavorting in a field near the road, apparently just after having been unhitched from a plough. We stopped to watch them, at which moment a group of cows in a field on the other side of the road galloped up to the fence to see what the fuss was all about. When was the last time you saw a cow gallop (are Amish-raised cows more alert and active than others?)? They made a hilarious sight jostling each other at the fence for a place in my picture!

We drove around a while longer. Just as the sun was setting and we started thinking about heading back to our B&B, we happened by a house near the road with a small sign announcing a scrapbooking-and-quilt store inside. Needless to say, we HAD to stop and check it out--and it was the best shop we visited the whole trip! Called Farmhouse Memories (no web site yet), it's run by a very nice lady named Rachel (write or call us, if you'd like, for the address and phone). She and Melany hit it off instantly--to hear them gab on about scrabooking, sewing, fabric, crafts, children, etc., you'd think they had known each other for 20 years! Up to that point Melany hadn't found in the other stores we'd visited much she liked at the right prices, but all that changed in Rachel's little shop! We even got to meet her little nephew, who showed us some cards he had made (very skillfully, too--we even bought some!). We were in there the better part of an hour, but finally parted feeling like we had made a new friend, not just found a store we liked. How often do you have an experience like that?

By this time, it was getting pretty dark, so we decided to go straight (in a manner of speaking; our route was anything but) back to the Kimmel House. Put to its greatest challenge, as we were out in the middle of farm country in the dark with no clue how to get back, the GPS performed flawlessly! Sometimes technology really can be a blessing!

Friday morning, after another of Bonnie's magnificent breakfasts, we decided to forego visiting the huge and rather crowded Green Dragon Farmers Market & Auction, there in Ephrata, and proceed on to Buffalo to pick up our dog Frank and cat Chloe from our son Rob's house, where they'd been staying during our trip. It was a long drive (7+ hours), but we had great fun chatting about our delightful visit to Pennsylvania Dutch Country (let us know if you'd like to make a trek there, and we'll supply you with all kinds of information and brochures)!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Change We Can Believe In

As you know, the Obama administration and its media allies are heavily into Change. And they've really topped themselves in the wake of the (alleged) hit on Osama bin Laden, serving up a dizzying variety of stories about how it happened that shift more actively the Arabian sands. Here's a sampling of the "facts" that I've heard put forward in the last few days, most from government officials and spokespersons, others from various media outlets and supposed witnesses. It was fun, in a perverse sort of way, putting this list together:
  • Osama lived in the house for two years. Five years. Six years.
  • The residence was an air-conditioned, fortified mansion. It was a seedy, un-airconditioned blockhouse.
  • The house had no Internet service. The house had Internet service.
  • Osama was actively directing Al-Qaeda. He was not actively directing Al-Qaeda.
  • The mission was to kill him. The mission was to take him alive.
  • The Pakistanis helped in the raid. They knew about it but didn't help. They didn't know.
  • There was a big firefight. There was a little firefight. There was no firefight.
  • Osama resisted. He didn't resist.
  • He fired back. He was unarmed.
  • His associates in the house fired back. One of them was armed but didn't shoot. None of them were armed.
  • Osama's wife called to him by name. She didn't call to him. Somebody else called to him. Nobody called to him.
  • He hid behind his wife. He didn't hide behind his wife. She was somebody else's wife. Sister. Daughter. Niece. Servant.
  • She was killed. Wounded. Unharmed.
  • There was no woman near him.
  • Osama was shot and then captured. He was captured and then shot.
  • He was shot in the forehead. In the temple. In the chest. Some of the above. All of the above.
  • He died Sunday afternoon (EST). Sunday evening. Last week.
  • The DNA identification took several days. Several hours. Several minutes.
  • The President saw the whole thing on live video. He didn't see the whole thing. He didn't see anything.
  • We'll release a photo of his corpse. We won't release a photo of his corpse.
  • Sen. Brown saw the real photos, which prove that Osama is dead.
  • Sen. Brown saw fake photos--but we don't need the real ones to know that Osama is dead.
  • Al-Qaeda is still strong. Al-Qaeda is dead.
  • The war on terror isn't over. The war on terror is virtually over.
Here's another manifestation of this phenomenon--Rep. Nancy Pelosi, in a press conference on September 7, 2006:
[E]ven if [Osama bin Laden] is caught tomorrow, it is five years too late. He has done more damage the longer he has been out there. But, in fact, the damage that he has done . . . is done. And even to capture him now I don’t think makes us any safer.
Nancy Pelosi May 2, 2011:
The death of Osama bin Laden marks the most significant development in our fight against al-Qaida. . . . I salute President Obama, his national security team, Director Panetta, our men and women in the intelligence community and military, and other nations who supported this effort for their leadership in achieving this major accomplishment. . . . [T]he death of Osama bin Laden is historic. . . .
If you, too are heavily into Change, you've gotta be loving this. Or spinning your head around like Linda Blair.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A New Royal FAMILY!

I know that guys aren't supposed to pay any attention to such stuff, but I was enthralled by last week's "Royal Wedding" uniting Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine ("Kate") Middleton, now Duchess of Cambridge. I was only able to see Kate's arrival at Westminster Abbey and her walk down the aisle to the altar, and the singing of Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer (one of my favorite hymns) before I had to leave home for work. But I was later able to see the entire spectacle, including the wedding ceremony itself, on YouTube.

Many Americans dismissed the wedding as silly and irrelevant, but not me. Being a history enthusiast and a romantic, I'm naturally absorbed by any event that features an ancient land and culture, breathtaking architecture (Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace), stirring music, colorful military regalia, a dashing young nobleman, a beautiful young lady, an Archbishop (of Canterbury), dukes and earls, several Princes, a Queen, and so on. Great Britain is America's mother country and the ultimate source of our language, literature, and legal institutions, so what happens there is, or should be, of great interest to us. And who can forget the heroic, solitary struggle of the British against the Axis in the early years of World War Two, under the leadership of the redoubtable Winston S. Churchill?

Even more compelling to me was the hope, perhaps even the promise, of a new Royal FAMILY (emphasis on the latter word) to model love, nurturing, and self-sacrifice for Britain and the whole world. Can you imagine these things actually becoming fashionable? Few indeed are the couples who can uplift a whole people, and promote family-building, society-strengthening values, just by being good spouses and parents. William and Kate (I'll dispense with their royal titles) have a chance to do so, and I just get the feeling that they might pull it off. The United Kingdom (UK) and the whole Western world desperately need a shining example of family strength. British royals of the recent and more distant past haven't done a very good job of this--Queen Victoria and Prince Albert being a notable exception, at least for a while--but something about Kate and William makes me more hopeful.

Maybe it's the aura of graceful self-confidence that Kate projects; she impresses me as a mature woman in command of herself and her life (in contrast to the fragile vulnerability of William's mother Diana at the time of her marriage), yet generous and sensitive to others, not self-absorbed or vain. She comes from a middle class family with roots (on her mother's side) in England's coal-mining country; what wealth her parents have was earned in their own start-up business, not inherited. She and her siblings and parents seem to have a harmonious relationship. Kate even showed a bit of maternal instinct when she bent down to console one of her toddler bridesmaids who became upset during "The Kiss" on the Buckingham Palace balcony, as Royal Air Force planes flew over and the crowd became deafening. And she positively beams in the "official" wedding pictures with all those children around her and William. At the same time, she's shown some iron in dealing with the paparazzi, and I believe would fight to maintain a normal family life and keep William "on the reservation," much more effectively than Diana could with Prince Charles.

Another positive aspect of the couple's relationship is its endurance over nearly a decade; they even "broke up" at least once, but reconciled some months later. They know each other well and didn't give up on each other, despite their differences, so should be unusually well-prepared for the realities of marriage. They had years to reflect and weigh what they would give up and what they would gain by marrying, what burdens they would have to shoulder and and what joys they would have. Despite all they've already been through, in public they still seem entirely familiar, natural, and affectionate with each other, and so already exhibit many characteristics of a happily married couple.

I'm not completely naive; I'm aware of the widespread speculation that William and Kate have "known" each other in the, ahem, "Biblical" sense, for some time. Assuming such rumors are true, however, I likewise don't dismiss out of hand the possibility that they came to recognize this as a dead-end street, and that there was a much richer life awaiting them as husband and wife. If the demands of their station and the corrosive effects of modern culture don't overwhelm them, I like to think that they'll embrace the life they've chosen and continue to grow in maturity and wisdom.

I also like to think that the promise of this new family was well expressed in the sermon delivered at the wedding ceremony by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London:
In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and the groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.

William and Catherine, you have chosen to be married in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

And in the Spirit of this generous God, husband and wife are to give themselves to each another.

* * * *

I pray that God will bless you in the way of life that you have chosen, that way which is expressed in the prayer that you have composed together in preparation for this day:

God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage.
In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy. Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer. We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.
So, please forgive me if I choose to believe in this particular Fairy Tale. If we never believed in fairy tales, none would ever have a chance of coming true. It would be so inspiring, and so good for the UK and the West, if this one did.

One more thing, ladies:

Monday, May 2, 2011

Raining On Your Parade

Forgive me if I'm not delirious with joy over Osama bin Laden's violent death. I'm satisfied, to be sure, but it just doesn't seem Christian to gleefully celebrate the slaughter of one more human being, even one guilty of slaughter himself. I'm not saying that dispatching bin Laden was wrong; homicide is justifiable in a just war, as is ours against terrorism. But all the flag-waving exultation seems a bit unseemly to me. I find no happiness in dancing on someone's grave, or washing my hands in his blood. I'd rather observe this occasion by praying for bin Laden's many victims and their families, and begging God that the hate and murder stop, here and now.

I'd be happier if I thought killing bin Laden would bring that about, but I doubt that it will (unless God so wills it). His chief mentor, adviser, and right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri -- allegedly the "real brains" of al-Qaeda and the closest thing it's had to an operational director since 9/11 -- is still at large. Certainly bin Laden, an astute businessman, made sure long ago that his untold wealth was secured and distributed in such a way that it would be available to his minions whenever and however he met his end on this earth. Worse, he's cloned himself tens of thousands of times over across the globe, and has left legions of jihadis eager to avenge his death at our hands. He's even established hosts of schools and camps to train up new ones still in their youth and yet to be born. Far from ending radical Islam's war on the West, the killing of bin Laden may usher in a new and even more murderous phase of it. We may soon find ourselves praying for many more thousands of victims, even in this country.

We must remember that bin Laden and his followers are steeped in a culture of death. They seem to love dying as much as they love killing, and find greater zeal with every new drop of blood shed, whose ever it is. Bin Laden spent many years sowing dragon's teeth around the world, and we may soon have to battle, even on our own soil, the armies of crazed warriors sprung from them. Are we ready for that war, spiritually and materially? I wonder. The prospect fills me with dread and sadness.

And I fear that the immediate consequence of bin Laden's killing may be shameless political manipulation for the benefit of certain "leaders" in Washington and elsewhere, who celebrate today even as they work tirelessly to bankrupt this nation morally and financially, and so rob us of the strength we need to survive our enemies' onslaught. Will we succumb to well-wishing and complacency, and maintain these sappers in power--just because one criminal, out of thousands or millions, was brought down on their watch?

Again, I don't condemn what was done, and I don't feel "bad" about it--certainly not for Osama bin Laden. I salute the brave, capable men of our armed forces and intelligence apparatus who carried it out. I just don't share the euphoria. Go ahead and celebrate an early Fourth of July, everybody. I'll be on my knees praying for a real national deliverance.