Vilnius Day 2: Holocaust Links


Paneriai Memorial (ww2mus)

Paneriai (Ponar) Memorial

On my second day in Vilnius, I did research into the Holocaust, and visited sites associated with it.  First stop was Ponary Wood, the site of the killing of an estimated 100,000 people.  Paneriai is easy to access from the main train station in Vilnius and the rail journey is very brief.  There is then a short walk from the village into to woods and the memorial site.

There are multiple monuments and memorials here marking the deaths of Jews, Lithuanians, Poles, and Soviets.  Many of these are from the Soviet era, and make more of a political statement than a religious one.  This does not mean there is no acknowledgement of the 70,000 + Jews who died here.

Ponary Pit

One of the many grave pits in Ponary


There is a small museum on the site, and the rail which winds through the memorial park, takes visitors past the large pits, and the various memorials.  This is a moving place to visit, and the grey monuments, and the darker history, stand in contrast to the peaceful woodland surroundings.


After several hours visiting the woods and memorials, I made my way back to Vilnius. On arriving at the station, taxis became my mode of transport. My objectives were the Holocaust Museum (The Green House), and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.  Along the route I saw the KGB Museum, the same building had also been used as the Gestapo Headquarters.

Vilnius Gestapo (and later KGB) Headquarters

Vilnius Gestapo (and Later KGB) Headquarters

The Jewish Museum has exhibits detailing the rich Jewish culture of “The Jerusalem of the North” as Napoleon dubbed it.  It is a really useful resource in understanding the scope of the events of the Holocaust, and “what was lost.”

Chijune Sugihara Memorial (2)

Chijune Sugihara Memorial

The Green House Museum is a small but information packed venue. It has exhibits, but also really important documents about the ghettoisation, and later killing of the Jewish population of the city.  I read several really interesting documents and articles, one of which was a testimony to the doctors and officials of the ghetto, as it illustrated that the public health provision within the ghetto was superior to that of the city as a whole.

Outside the green House is the memorial to the Japanese diplomat Chijune Sugihara.  This man took it upon himself to issue exit visas to as many Jews as he could, before he was relieved of his post.  Thousands of Lithuanian and Polish Jews managed to flee with his assistance.

Vilnius proved to be a really great place to visit.  I enjoyed the Baltic culture, architecture and food.  I managed to do one of my favourite travel activities and visited beautiful churches and shrines.  And, I was able to continue my research into the Holocaust, and to become even more familiar to the richness of the Jewish culture of the region.


Jewish Museum link

“Whatever happened to the Nativity?”


I have bemoaned the state of biblical literacy in this blog before.  I am astonished that references to the ark, or to Goliath are seemingly unknown to many of my students.  Their practical knowledge of even the nativity story is awash with traditions and embellishments alien to the accounts of Matthew and Luke.

I find students whose experience of “Christmas” is commercial, and their nativity accounts include stops at multiple inns, stables full of sheep, pigs!, and even pandas.  The insistence on Three Kings, rather than a plurality of magi, etc., etc.., etc.

But how have we come to this point?

The nativity story makes for a good study.  In many schools in the UK there still is a general practice of putting on nativity plays.  These plays are meant to be inclusive, and for all students to be able to take part. As an educator I can see the merits in this.  The cost, however, often involves playing “fast and loose” with the text.  Why multiple inns, for instance? The answer is simple.  More inns, means more innkeepers, thus more roles.  Same with sheep.  The more animals, the more roles.  Pigs and pandas occur from the extension of this.  Pigs because in the UK, they are familiar farm animals (though alien to the biblical narrative). And pandas?  Well it all comes down to what onesie is available at home.

So what is the cost of this blurring of the detail?  Possibly nothing in day to day terms, but in terms of biblical and religious understanding – loads.

The Psalmist wrote in Psalm 78, “My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth.  I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old, things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, to the next generation would know them even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deed but would keep his commands. They would not be like their ancestors— a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.”

Are the things of old heard and known? Do the descendants know His power and wonder? Or has the chain been broken.  Are we to be the weakest link?

Cultural literacy seems weak enough in these days of virtual living, and perpetual gameplay.  I recently teased one of my students who was wearing a pair of florescent red trainers.  I asked what would happen if they clicked their heels together and said “there is no place like home?” I was met with this vacant look of non-understanding, and a “huh?”

Fair enough, we can continue as a culture even without Dorothy and Toto; but can we without the Word of God?


A Visit to Vilnius, Lithuania (Day 1): The City

Vilnius Cathedral (detail)

Cathedral Detail

I made a short visit to Vilnius in part to see the Baltic states, and in part to further my research and knowledge of the Holocaust.  I found this to be a beautiful city, with good food and quick easy transport.

My base of operation was Hotel Runmis in a double room, booked for a single person. The hotel from the outside looks modern, and inside is a bit basic, but is very much what can be expected of economy accommodation.

The hotel is about 400 meters from the main rail station via a foot bridge over the tracks. In this regard it is convenient if able-bodied, but requires negotiating multiple stairs if disabled (so taxi or other transport might be needed).

There seemed at first to be a slight musty smell to the room, but this soon passed, and was not noticed again on any returns to the room. The furniture seemed very much Scandinavian flat pack, but the room was comfortable. The room was clean, and the shower good. The bathroom tap water was very cloudy, but cleared if let to set. There was however a water cooler in the reception area. The sleep quality was good, and the mattress firm.  The staff’s English is very limited, but they tried to be helpful.

My exploring was via the Vilnius Tour Bus on day one, and by rail and taxi on day two.  Both were affordable and easy to use. The bus route began in front of the cathedral and took in many of the city’s splendid churches.

The image of the Iron Wolf was found throughout the city. It is the symbol of the city, and is based on a legend about the founding of Vilnius. The Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas was hunting in holy woods in the Valley of Sventaragis in the year 1323. He had a dream in which he saw an iron wolf on the mountaintop. This lone wolf of iron howled as loudly as hundreds of wolves in unison. Confused by the dream, the Grand Duke sought an interpretation.  A wise priest told him, “the Iron Wolf signifies a large and mighty city. The city will stand as strong as iron and its walls will protect the land from its enemies. The howling means a clamor will arise from it reaching far beyond the country’s borders and proclaiming through long centuries the glory of Lithuania.”

Iron Wolf of Vilnius

Iron Wolf

Ausros Gates (Gates of Dawn) are a must see if in Vilnius.  These former defensive city gates are beautiful, and packed with religious significance.  The icon of Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn is at the chapel there.

I ate a few of my meals at Gusto Blynine. I happened onto this place in my wanderings, and found it a great place for a bite and a bit of a break. The food is tasty and the selection of fillings was good. Yes, the menu is primarily pancakes, but there are also main courses, “beer snacks,” and other options. On my first stop in, I had a stewed salmon pancake and a cup of coffee (served with a biscuit by the way). The food was well prepared and the service good so I returned for dinner that night and breakfast the following day (Potato pancake with herring and omelette with strewed carrot and peppers respectively.  The atmosphere is pleasant, though very “family restaurant” in its feel.

Day two was the research day.  But that is a different post.


Gusto Blynine link

Vilnius Tour link

“Who is this Man?”

Bude - Widemouth Bay 2


The 400 year long, “Silence of Heaven,” had been broken with the coming of John the Baptiser.  Prophecy (and thus prophets) had returned to Israel.  The Age of Messiah was at hand.  But was Messiah just to be a prophet beyond prophets, or someone even greater?

The Anointed One of God, was to be more!  But how much more? The evidence presented to His disciples on the Sea of Galilee, gives us insight.

Psalm 107: 28 and 29 speaks of the mighty works of God, “Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.”  God: the creator, sustainer, and master of the universe alone stills the waters.

No wonder then, in Mark 4:35-41, that his followers marvel when He, almost word for word fulfills the wording of the Psalm, “That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.  A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.  Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

This is a great example of the lack of understanding of even His closest companions.  It is amazing that at least four of them were experienced mariners (fishermen), and they go to this carpenter from Nazareth for assistance.  This point has been hotly debated.  Were they seeking the miraculous?  The closing of the passage suggests not.  If the boat were indeed in peril, they wanted “practical” help.  “Hey Jesus, help us bale.”

Whatever their intention, they are not prepared for the response.  Essentially, “Why are you worried?” “He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm (vs 40).”

Their reaction? “They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him (vs 41)!”

Jesus had just did what only God could do.  He had just put into practice Psalm 107. He did not only this but, as John puts it, Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).”  He not only quieted the sea, He made it (Genesis 1:9-10, John 1:10).

“Who is this man?” Jesus was no mere prophet.  He was Messiah. He was God!  He is the Word become incarnate.  He is Emmanuel, “God with us.”  That is who this man is.



Bruges Getaway



I was in the mood to do something special with my wife, so I asked her if she would like to go out for waffles in the morning.  She responded in the affirmative, and bright and early I woke her so she could have her sweet treat.  What she didn’t know was that I had come to the conclusion that the best place for waffles, must by definition be in Belgium.

It didn’t take her long to figure out that this was no quick trip to the pancake house.  No, we headed south to the Port of Dover, and caught the ferry to Calais, and made our way the Bruges.

Bruges is a wonderful historic city with canals (okay, not as extensive as Amersterdam, but still nice); a wonderful cathedral, and loads of waffle and chocolate shops!

We started our visit with the planned waffles.  The shop while small, had wonderful Flemish gables, and sweet satisfying waffles.  We took our time, and when we had finished, we to explore more.

We next stopped in for hot chocolate; and some gourmet chocolate to take away from the Old Chocolate House on Mariastraat. The hot chocolate is just that.  Not a mildly chocolate flavoured milk product, but hot liquid artisan cocoa.  It was wonderful.

We then went to the Church of Our Lady to see The Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo.  This statue of the Madonna and Child is unique as it is the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime.  Even after coming to Bruges, it has been stolen twice once in the French Revolution, and again by the Nazis.  It was returned at the end of WW2, and is a masterpiece well worth seeing.  It is a cornerstone of the must sees in the city.

Unfortunately, our stay was brief (only about 4 hours) but we only had a day ticket for the ferry, so back to Calais we went. It was a remarkable day, and not bad for an outing for waffles.


Limits of Morality?



What are the limits of our moral responsibility?  Are there limits to our moral responsibility? An interesting news piece a week or so ago was that the city of Salzburg had installed airbags on lampposts to protect people who are texting from harming themselves.  The council had seen it as a moral responsibility to prevent people from harming themselves, even when carrying out, shall we say, less wise acts such as texting while walking.

We can increase this moral scenario to a hypothetical situation (which may or may not be truly defensible in light of the abilities of the “disabled.”)  What is our responsibility if the “stereotypical” blind man (dark glasses and white stick) is heading towards the open manhole? Should we shout out?  Do we watch? Do we ignore?

Unlike the first scenario, there is no fault on the part of the one endangered in our second case (John 9: 1-3)?  But, even in the first, should we allow people to fall victim of their own folly?  The answer would seem to me, to be no. We have a moral responsibility to “love our neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12:31).”

But what about spiritual danger?  Do we have the same moral imperative to shout warning to those who sin?  It is easy to take the approach that, “it is not my place to judge.”  Fair enough, don’t be judgmental. It is up to God to judge. We are all sinners. But is that the end of the matter? Or do we still have a responsibility?

Here is a simple enough approach to address this, without entering into finger pointing [or any PC or non-PC agenda].  We are all sinners.  We need not be judgmental in calling that fact to others’ attention.  We need not focus on any single act, or sin; but on sinfulness itself.  The positive approach is to call attention to the “manhole cover” that will make the situation safe.  We need to teach about the cleansing blood of Him crucified, and of the grace which offers this “fix.”  Herein lies our moral duty to “love.”

John Wesley put excellently when he said,”[W]ere I to let any soul drop into the pit whom I might have saved from everlasting burnings, I am not satisfied that God would accept my plea ‘Lord, he was not of my parish’.”

It is something to think about.




Learning from Sir Ian McKellen


Ian McKellen as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings/Hobbit franchise

Sir Ian came to the college to speak to our students today. His presentation was excellent, and provided a wonderful example of the speaker’s art.

He began with rapport building.  This was accomplished in two ways.  First as the student body was divided into two venues with him addressing the larger audience directly, and the others watching on live feed in the other hall, he made a point of going and seeing the smaller group in person before starting his main speech.  Secondly, he began his presentation with a purposeful scanning of his speaking space (which doubles as our exams venue), and then admonished study and revision, before stepping forward to the mic and announcing in his best Gandalf voice “Or You Shall Not Pass.”

Rapport built, he laid out his main message (human dignity and anti-bullying), making clear references to his theme, while interlacing it with personal anecdotes (which each had emotional appeal); and with rhetorical but direct questioning of his auditors’ own experiences.  As each point for consideration was made, he suggested how the audience both individually and collectively could make a difference if they applied the message.

This reinforcement of the theme with the personalised appeal strengthened his message as the audience was given a sense of responsibility and ownership.  He made the message their (our) own.

So what can we learn from Sir Ian?  Number one connect with your audience.  Secondly, make your message clear, and present it in a step by step developmental manner.  Thirdly, make the audience feel a responsibility or ownership of the message.
It was truly a treat, as both an educator and as a public speaker to see a master craftsman at work.


Visiting Dover’s White Cliffs

White Cliffs 5

White Cliffs

It is ironic that one of this “Green and Pleasant Land’s” most iconic symbols are the “White Cliffs” of its Southeast corner.  The White Cliffs of Dover stand as an emblem of the defiance of “fortress Britain” against the potential invasions of both Napoleon and Hitler, and they have been beacons of safety to returning air crews and mariners alike.

Today, the cliffs are one of the great landmarks of this island nation.  Much of this area of coast is maintained by the National Trust, and the trust provides a very good visitors’ centre for those taking in the natural and national wonder.

White Cliffs Tea Room 1

Tea Room

We  started our visit by stopping at the National Trust’s White Cliffs Centre for a look around and a hot drink. The Cafe overlooks the Port of Dover, and it was nice to sit in the cafe and watch the ferries coming in and out of the harbour. The service was attentive, and the coffee and tea good. The fruit scone, was a little dry, but not bad, and the clotted cream and blackcurrant jam more than made up for it. The Trust shop has the usual souvenirs, and the Centre provides a good base for walks along the cliffs and to just watch the sea.

Dover Cliffs

The National Trust provides miles of footpaths and trails to view the scenery, wildlife, and historical sites within the White Cliffs area.  On clear days the French coast is visible, and the various vantage points allow the cliffs themselves to be taken in.  There is also a wheelchair friendly short path which leads to a viewing point as well.

Watching Ferries Go By

Watch Ferries from Clifftop

The iconic cliffs are well worth seeing. Whether from sea (on ferry or boat tour), or from land looking from Dover or the National Trust site, these spectacular chalk cliffs are a must see. The National Trust cafe is a good starting point for these views.  As I have noted, there a loads of trails, and a convenient walk runs from right above the Dover Port to the Lighthouse near the cafe. The Dover Castle is also nearby, and history and nature are all there to take in.

Positioned above the port, stands Dover Castle.  The fortress, from its Medieval heart to the World War Two tunnels complex, is a sign of England’s defiance of invasion. It, unlike the surrounding cliffs, is maintained and administered by English Heritage. Whether the Great Tower, the WW2 tunnels, or the Operation Dynamo exhibit, the castle has much to offer a visitor.  There are also several cafes and eateries within the complex.

The Port of Dover sits below the cliffs, and boat tours and day excursions to the Continent (via the ferries) are available for those wanting to go further afield.

Dover’s White Cliffs and attractions provide a full and rich experience whether for a day, or even a longer stay.



English Heritage Link

National Trust link


Great Men or Footnotes?


Seventy Donkeys of Abdon

There are a few of places in scripture (such as Judges 10 and 12) where references are made to men, with limited or no commentary.  One might ask whether these were “great men of God” or mere footnotes in the biblical narrative.

Ibzan, Elon and Abdon  in Judges 12 for instance,  “After him [Jephthah], Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel. He had thirty sons and thirty daughters. He gave his daughters away in marriage to those outside his clan, and for his sons he brought in thirty young women as wives from outside his clan. Ibzan led Israel seven years. 10 Then Ibzan died and was buried in Bethlehem. 11 After him, Elon the Zebulunite led Israel ten years. 12 Then Elon died and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun 13 After him, Abdon son of Hillel, from Pirathon, led Israel. 14 He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys. He led Israel eight years. 15 Then Abdon son of Hillel died and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.”

These were leaders and Judges over Israel. Men in the Bible. But were they men “of” the Bible?  Were they “Great Men” or Footnotes?

The answer to our title question may never be known to us while here of Earth.  But it is sure, it is known to God.  It seems it was not within the Spirit’s inspirational gift to guide the prophets to give the details. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1: 21).”  Whether this was for the humility of the men involved, or whether their tenures while important to the chronology were insignificant in the providing us our spiritual needs, for  “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).”  Whatever the verdict, and whatever the reason for the scant detail, God knows!

What about our lives? Whether in limelight, or in obscurity, God knows our stories as well. Psalm 139 notes, “Lord, you have examined me and know all about me. You know when I sit down and when I get up.  You know my thoughts before I think them.  You know where I go and where I lie down.  You know everything I do.  Lord, even before I say a word,  you already know it.  You are all around me—in front and in back—  and have put your hand on me. our knowledge is amazing to me; it is more than I can understand (verses 1-6).”

With this insight of God’s ever present knowledge of our comings and goings, are we living up to our callings?  We who have answered the call of the Gospel are recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev 21:27). But will we be great men (and women) of God (as found in Hebrews 11)? Or are we mere footnotes? Let’s rise to the challenge today.


Made New

imageedit_1_2355279240 (1)

New Beginnings

In Genesis we find the account of creation. God’s Word speaks all into existence and concludes with the statement, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day (verse 31).”

This “very good” world, was termed as paradise, and God had intimate contact  with it, and even, “walked in the garden in the cool of the day (Gen 3: 8).”  But the relationship was short lived, as sin entered into the world. Milton called this “Paradise Lost,” but the alienation of the creation from the Creator, had a remedy.

“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).”  He made a way to not only rebuild relationship, but to bridge the gap and to heal the creation itself.  Second Corinthians 5 reads, “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we [Paul for certain, in his rejection of the resurrection] once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come [The Word of creation, has become flesh, and renewed our relationship]. The old [fallen self] has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation (verses 16-19).” [Italics are mine].

Brother AJ recently reflected, “The moment we place our trust in Jesus, we become brand-new people. That is the basis for our capacity to think correctly (that is, to think more like Christ) and therefore make wise decisions in life. This doesn’t mean we will always think right thoughts, but we now have the responsibility—and power through the Holy Spirit—to steer our mind in a heavenly direction.”  What a wonderful take on our role in the reconciliation.  We are no the arbiters of the new beginning, but the beneficiaries who should now make the most of our fresh starts.

Scripture not only tells us we are made new, but assures us that a day is coming when all creation will undergo a transformation. Revelation 21 reads, “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea,  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away {verses 1-4).” Let each of us newly restored creatures look forward to that day, and until it comes to be like Paul, “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us . . .  implor[ing others] on Christ’s behalf: [to]be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20).”