Irena Sendler:  The Ghetto and the Glass Jar

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Irena Sendler was a social worker, and personally responsible for saving 2,500 Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

In 1939, 450,000 Jews were rounded up in Warsaw by the Nazis and crammed into a tiny section of the city, behind seven foot high walls, and Sendler knew that time was precious.  As the head of the children’s bureau of Zegota, a social service program responsible for monitoring the threat of typhus in this newly established ghetto, she was given unlimited access by the Nazis in order to insure “sanitary conditions.”

What the Nazis didn’t realize was that Zegota was also the cover for an underground resistance movement committed to saving Jews from death, and Sendler was at the heart of this effort.  For nearly five years, using health inspections as an excuse, she entered the ghetto again and again and smuggled infants and children to safety;  in coffins, burlap sacks, tool cases, wrapped packages, and even beneath the floor boards of an ambulance.

And as parents gave their children to Sendler, she collected names.  New identities had been created for the children, but she wanted to make sure their original identities were not lost.  She buried this list of names in a glass jar in her backyard in case she was arrested.

In 1943, the Gestapo did finally catch Sendler.  She was imprisoned, tortured, and sentenced to death.  However she was able to escape, and went into hiding.  As soon as the war ended, she dug up the jar, grabbed the list, and went to work trying to re-connect the children she’d saved with their families.

In gratitude, Israel made her an honorary citizen in 1991.

Irena Sendler is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

The Mystery Men of Advent

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Who were the magi?  What were the magi?  We read about them every Advent, but what do we really know about these mystery men who appear ever so briefly in the Christmas story, and then fade back into the fog of time never to be heard from again. On this Feast Day of the Epiphany, I’d like to take a closer look.

They’ve been described as ‘wise men’, and ‘kings’, and ancient historians believe they were from a priestly caste in Persia, in the Zoroastrian tradition.  Historically, magi studied the stars as astronomers, were adept at interpreting dreams, and were often charged with the duty of choosing the king.

Tradition tells us there were three magi in the Gospel narrative, based on the fact that three gifts were brought to Jesus.  And the gifts they brought prophesied about the mission of Jesus.

The magi brought gold, symbolizing kingship—a clear statement that these ‘king makers’ somehow recognized that Jesus was in fact a King, albeit the King of a different kingdom.

The magi brought frankincense, a gift representing Jesus’ priesthood since frankincense was used in temple worship and accompanied the meal offering.  Jesus is the Great High Priest, who would offer His very life for the salvation of humankind.

And the magi brought myrrh, an ingredient in sacred oil used to anoint the Tabernacle, high priests, and kings.  Myrrh was also used as an embalming agent.  Jesus, the King and High Priest, was born to die.

Many sermons could be preached on the significance of the three gifts, and should, but I want to return to the givers of the gifts for now—the three mystery men of Advent, mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel.

They were outsiders;  from a different country, from a different culture, and from a different faith tradition.

Yet, somehow they were looking for the Messiah, and they didn’t miss the sign when it finally appeared.  They saw the star, understood what it meant, and journeyed to find Him.  When they found Him, they knelt before Him and gave generously.  And when culture, in the person of King Herod, asked them to sell Jesus out they refused.

You think maybe there’s a message in any of this for us?  Or better, a challenge?

Nestled comfortably in the fullness of faith, do we still search for Him?  Do we still look for signs of His presence among us?  Do we honor Him with our hearts and our material gifts?  And when our culture of death asks us to betray Him, do we stand fast in our beliefs?

I pray that, like the mystery men of Advent, we too look for Jesus, love Jesus, and honor Jesus with our lives—and not just at Christmas time.

Heroes You Should Know:  Vasili Arkhipov

 

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“The man who saved the world” is a pretty impressive title.  But that’s exactly what Vasili Arkhipov did.  Arkhipov was second in command on one of the Soviet Union’s four B-59 attack submarines, sent to Cuba in October of 1962.  Arkhipov’s submarine carried 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear—and as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

 

Each of the captains had been given permission to fire their nuclear torpedoes as long as they had the blessing of their on-board political officer.  The only other officer with veto power was Vasili Arkhipov, who was in charge of the submarine flotilla.

 

Because the submarines had been so deep under water en route to Cuba they did not receive radio transmissions from Moscow about the United States’ naval blockade of Cuba.  So on October 27, when eleven U.S. destroyers and the USS Randolph located the submarine Arkhipov was on and began dropping depth charges to force it to surface and identify its self, Soviet captain Valentin Savitsky mistakenly believed war had begun. He and the political officer on board wanted to respond by launching their nuclear torpedo.  Arkhipov forcefully disagreed, arguing that no direct order had come from Moscow and such a response would be catastrophic.  He suggested the sub surface and find out for sure what was going on.  A heated argument reportedly ensued between the three men in charge, but Arkhipov held his ground against the other two officers.  Eventually, he prevailed.  The submarine surfaced, was told by the Americans to return to the Soviet Union, and a nuclear war was averted.

 

It is believed that Arkhipov’s position eventually carried the day because of his prior heroism.  You see, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had been present at another near-catastrophic nuclear disaster!

 

In July of 1961, the K-19 nuclear submarine Arkhipov was on, complete with a nuclear missile, sprung a leak in the reactor coolant system and was in real danger of a nuclear meltdown.  Engineers on board the sub built a make-shift cooling system and were able to contain the overheating reactor. But the first-responders, along with many crewmen, died of radiation exposure and in response the crew of the K-19 almost erupted in mutiny.  Arkhipov himself was seriously irradiated, but stood by his captain, was credited with helping to quell the revolt, and was later awarded a medal for valor.

 

Arkhipov would go on to serve another twenty years, retiring as a Rear Admiral.  He died in 1998 at the age of 72, and his exposure to radiation on the K-19 was cited as a contributing cause of death.

 

A man who was in the right place at the right time—twice!  And the world should be very grateful.

 

Vasili Arkhipov is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know:  Maria “Meva” Dobrucka

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 Maria Dobrucka, nicknamed “Meva” (“seagull” in Polish), was born in 1927 and grew up in Czortkow, a small Polish town in present-day Ukraine.  Czortkow had a large Jewish population, and by March of 1942 the Nazis had established a ghetto where all the Jewish inhabitants—approximately 6,800 people—had to relocate to.  And within six months, the Nazis had begun shipping people from the ghetto to the concentration camp at Belzec.

 

It was around this time that the Hausers, a Jewish family, got message to their friends the Dobruckas, begging them to help save their two year-old daughter Inka Hauser.

 

Because of her size, it was decided that 15 year-old Meva would sneak into the ghetto through a tiny window in the wall, get Inka, and sneak back out.  The plan seemed to have little chance of succeeding, and if Meva had been caught she surely would have been executed on the spot.  Yet into the ghetto she crept, at dusk on that August night in 1942 with a Star of David on her arm in case Nazi soldiers spotted her.  Meva met the Hausers, took Inka in her arms, and climbed back out and into the night undetected.

 

For the next three years, as the Nazi atrocities grew, and roughly half of the Jews in the Czortkow ghetto were killed, Meva and the Dobrucka family raised Inka.  It would have been more than heroic enough for teen-aged Meva to courageously risk death by sneaking in to the ghetto, getting Inka, and sneaking back out without the guards seeing her.  But the teen-ager also had the compassion to continue comforting and caring for Inka as a sister for the duration of the war.

 

Miraculously, the Hausers survived, and after the war came knocking on the Dobrucka’s door.  Inka did not recognize her parents at first because she had left them when she was so young.

 

In September of 1983 Maria Dobrucka-Mikusz, along with her parents Aniela Dobrucka and Andrzej Dobrucki, was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel for her heroism.

 

Now living in California with her own children, Inka Hauser-Huber has remained in close contact with the woman who had carried her through the valley of the shadow of death so many years before.

 

Maria “Meva” Dobrucka is a hero you should know.  And I‘m Dr. Ross Porter.

Listening very much…

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Holiday.  You’ll read that word a lot in the next several weeks.  We know what the term means to many nowadays:  time off from work, vacation, a chance to get last minute shopping done, parties, lots of food.

But what did it originally mean?  Halig (Holy) daeg (day) was a Middle English word, first used in the 12th century.  It marked special days set aside by the Church.  General work was suspended in order to frame, consider, and celebrate “holiness”.

Holy days help us understand what holiness really is—and how we too can become holy.  In the Christian world, every Sunday is considered a Holy Day—the Sabbath.   And of course we have days like Easter and Christmas to remind us why we have a faith.  Most believers will make some effort to get to church on these days at a minimum.

But if it’s just about Church attendance, we’re missing the point!

Do you see signs of holiness in yourself, and in those around you?  My guess is that you’d know it if you saw it, or experienced it, even though you might not call it “holiness.”  It’s found in love, and gentleness, and goodness, and sacrifice, and faith, and joyful humility.  I’ve been blessed with many examples in my life, but I want to focus on an example from my seminary days which still stirs my heart.

For a couple of years, I lived next door to a beautiful Chinese family.  Grandma Yen, the matriarch, was well into her 80’s when I first met her but still very much in love with Jesus.  One day she knocked on my front door to ask a favor of me.  Would I be willing to read her favorite Bible verses while she recorded me?  I agreed, thinking Grandma Yen was wanting to practice her English, and quickly affirmed her desire to become more fluent.  With a smile, she politely corrected me stating that it wasn’t about her English, it was about her spiritual life.  As she explained it, because she didn’t have a strong command of the English language, the recordings would challenge her to “listen very much when God talks to me.”

Grandma Yen has been in Heaven for twenty-one years now, after a lifetime of listening very much to God’s words to her, and then following His directions.  I think of her every time the Holidays Season rolls around.  She will always serve as an example of holiness for me, and provides a clue for how we can all stay connected to the original meaning of the Holidays.

May we all listen “very much” to the words of God, cherish them, follow them…and help make this Holiday Season truly holy.

 

 

Heroes You Should Know:  Neerja Bhanot

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Twenty-two year old Neerja Bhanot was the senior flight attendant on Pan Am Flight 73 bound for New York City when it was hijacked in the early morning hours of September 5, 1986, during a layover in Karachi, Pakistan.  As four heavily armed terrorists, members of the Abu Nidal Organization (an offshoot of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction of the PLO) boarded the plane, Bhanot notified the cockpit.  And since the plane was still on the tarmac, the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer were able to escape through a ceiling hatch.

Now the most senior member of the 13 person flight crew, the terrorists demanded Bhanot gather the passports of the 360 passengers so they could identify the Americans on board and execute them.  Bhanot instructed the attendants to hide the 41 American passports, under seats and in a trash chute.
After a seventeen hour stand-off, the terrorists opened fire inside the plane and began setting off explosives.  Bhanot opened the emergency exit, and as the first closest to the exit could have easily escaped.  But she chose to stay, and began helping people get out.  Pakistani commandos stormed the plane and took control.  In the chaos, Bhanot, shielding three children with her body, was shot multiple times by the terrorists and died.

Because of her quick thinking, and extraordinary bravery, Bhanot was able to keep the plane from taking off, helped to stall the hijackers, and limited the massacre to 22 dead.  It had been believed that the hijackers intended to use the plane to pick up Palestinian prisoners in Cyprus and Israel.  However, in 2006 one of the hostages wrote that he’d heard the hijackers discussing the plan of crashing the plane into a target in Israel.

All four hijackers were eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison.  By 2008, though, all four hijackers had been released.

Bhanot was posthumously honored with India’s highest peacetime medal of bravery, the Ashok Chakra Award.  She was the first woman, and the youngest person, to receive this distinction.  Her parents and Pan Am Airlines honored her memory by establishing the Neerja Bhanot Pan Am Trust, which awards prize money each year to one flight crew member worldwide and one Indian woman who act with remarkable courage for social justice.

Almost exactly fifteen years before 9/11, Neerja Bhanot embodied an eternal truth—that nothing is more powerful than the willingness to die to save lives.  It’s the opposite of terrorism, and it’s the stuff of greatness.

Neerja Bhanot is a hero you should know.  And I‘m Dr. Ross Porter.

 

Heaven, Hell, and the virtue of Hope

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“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”  -Viktor Frankl

 

Dante, in his Inferno, wrote that the gate leading into Hell carries the inscription, “Abandon all hope, you who enter.”  Indeed life without hope is hell.  But can hope be found in the midst of hell?  I’m talking about the here-and-now, in this world and this life, in the midst of suffering, and pain, and despair that threaten to rob one’s life of meaning?  Can hope be found when all that matters most seems lost, or in real danger of being lost?

 

To fully understand the virtue of hope, one must recognize that “hell” is actually the best place to find it.

 

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Viktor Frankl described an intimate moment that speaks to this point.  Early one morning he was marching with fellow prisoners inside the concentration camp of Auschwitz when he began thinking of his wife.  He imagined her smile, her reassuring facial expressions, and a dialogue they might have if they were together.  And he suddenly realized that whether she was in fact alive or dead, at that moment he was changed.  He had connected with something transcendent, and the hope it inspired lifted him above the horror of his present situation and gave him a reason to go on.

 

Surrounded by death, Frankl discovered that which death cannot swallow up.

 

Hope is what makes life worth living.  It is the virtue that confronts cynicism and despair.  It is the anchoring conviction that there is meaning in life, and it is the force that urges you to find it…and keep finding it.  But hope is more than this.

 

Hope is grounded in the reality that in the eternal battle of good versus evil, good will win.  In the end, things will make sense.  If optimism is lighting a candle in the darkness, hope is the knowing that whether the candle goes out or not the dawn will eventually come.

 

It may not look that way sometimes, in fact it may not look that way many times.  And if one only considers the present state of the world, and passing circumstances, disillusionment and fear can set up permanent residency in the heart.

 

Bad things do happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, and life is not always fair.  Hope does not deny this reality, but it does challenge the belief that this reality needs to be final and ultimate.

 

Do you believe this?  Do you believe in your heart that good is more powerful than evil, that love is greater than hate, and that death doesn’t have the last word?  And are you moved to act?  I pray you are.

 

Because the ongoing search for meaning and purpose is essential to being fully alive.  It is only in this search that one finds reasons to hope, and thus reasons to go on.

 

Heaven and hell do begin in this life.  Hope is the virtue that decides which one you’ll choose.

Heroes You Should Know: Dobri Dobrev—The Beautiful Beggar

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You’ve seen his type before, at the bottom of Freeway off ramps, sitting outside a church, sleeping in dark corners.  His clothes are worn and dirty.  He’s haggard, despairing, defeated.  Or is he?

 

A familiar figure who spends his days sitting outside the Cathedral in Sofia, Bulgaria Dobri Dobrev, seems to fit this description perfectly.  His weather-beaten face, long white beard, and scraggly hair coupled with his homemade clothes and shoes certainly give one the sense that he is a lost soul.  But the man commonly known as ‘Grandpa’, who just turned 101, is anything but.

 

Dobrev remembers little of his childhood, where his widowed mother struggled to make ends meet.  During World War II, a bomb exploded near him, and left him almost completely deaf.  Along the way he married and had four children.  And sometime around 2000 he gave away what little he had to the Church, and began begging.  Until recently, in sunshine, rain, or snow, he’s walked a 15 mile route with his little donation box in hand to the Cathedral to ask for money from passersby. At his advanced age, he’s finally agreed to take public transportation, but nothing deters him from his work.  And for a long time people assumed he kept the money he collected.

 

Recently, however, it’s come to light that Dobri has given away 100% of the donations received from his decades of begging, and has lived only on his monthly state pension of 80 euros (about $85 U.S.).  Churches and orphanages have been the beneficiaries of Dobri’s generosity to the tune of 40,000 euros (almost $43,000 U.S.).

 

Ultimately, however, generosity should not be measured by how much one gives, but rather in how much the giving stretches the giver.  Like the widow in the Gospels who gave a mite, Dobri Dobrev has been out-given by many in terms of amount donated.  But because his life has essentially become a continuous act of giving, you’d be hard pressed to find someone more generous than the old man of Bajlovo.

 

And why does he do it?  His answer is simple.  “We must love each other as God loves us.”

 

It’s been said that we make a living by what we get, but a life by what we give.  Dobri Dobrev is a living testament to that truth.  What a beautiful life.

 

Dobri Dobrev is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Alok Dixit and Laxmi

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In Agra, India, one mile from the breathtaking Taj Mahal something just as magnificent is taking place.  Sheroes Hangout is a café where women who have been maimed in acid attacks work—and heal.

 

In 2014, there were a reported 309 acid attacks where men purposely threw acid in the faces of women to scar them.  Often the reason involves the rejection of a marriage proposal.  As barbaric as it sounds until 2013 it was difficult to even prosecute the attackers because of archaic laws and prejudice toward women.

 

Alok Dixit, first confronted the horror of acid attacks as a journalist, and soon became a fulltime crusader for the victims when he founded ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ in 2013.  He realized well that in India, a person bearing the scars of an acid attack is typically shunned and finding employment is virtually impossible.  Thus the idea of Sheroes Hangout was born.  The business, launched by ‘Stop Acid Attacks’ in 2014 served over 5,000 customers in the first six months of its existence and has continued to grow since then.  Here, these survivors are empowered to leave the shadows of shame and learn to embrace life again.  Here, these remarkable women are free to develop new skills—both personal and professional.  And here, society learns to see facial and body scars as signs of courage and perseverance.

 

And as if this story couldn’t get more inspirational, in his quest for justice, Alok found love.  He met Laxmi, a television host and advocate for acid attack survivors.  She had survived such an assault herself at the tender age of 15 when a man more than twice her age threw her to the ground and splashed acid on her face and arms after she rejected his marriage proposal.  Alok and Laxmi have been inseparable ever since, and welcomed a baby girl into the world in 2014.

 

This couple continues to challenge the legal and social systems of India for greater justice, and in 2014 Laxmi was given the International Women of Courage award.

 

Change in India is slow, but progress is being made.  Since 2013, it has become illegal to buy acid over the counter, victims of acid attacks now receive free medical attention, and acid attackers can be sentenced to up to ten years in prison.

 

Alok Dixit and Laxmi remind us all that there is nothing more beautiful than goodness, and their courage and love inspire not just India, but the world.

 

He is a hero, and she a SHEro, you should know!  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Hunting for zombies:  The virtue of authenticity

“Whatever you bury before it is dead will come back to haunt you.”

-Anonymous

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Zombies are on the loose!  The fact that we see them year-round now, in movies, on television shows, in commercials, and in video games shows that they are no longer contained by Halloween.  And in our increasingly wounded world this is not accidental.

 

Like all imaginary creatures zombies are powerful symbols of a very real phenomenon.  With their robotic walk, their dead eyes, and their grey skin tone, they graphically represent the parts of our lives that are “un-dead” and haunting.  We all have painful, ugly experiences we’ve not fully faced, understood, worked through, and finally put to rest forever.  And there can be good reasons for this.

 

If the painful experience is overwhelming, one may need to put it off for a while, or make sense of it a little at a time….it’s just too big to do all at once.  For instance, it took me years to work through all the fear I felt about my first born son’s fragile early years, where he almost died three different times.  There was so much.

 

And even with disturbing experiences that aren’t life-or-death, the bracketing of these memories can be essential to moving forward.  If we sat with all that has gone wrong, or could go wrong in life…all the possible scenarios where we could be injured in mind, body, or spirit…all the ways we have been and still are vulnerable, we’d literally have trouble getting out of bed each morning.

 

So, this “compartmentalizing” of psychological pain is protective and can even be adaptive to a point, giving us time to “get ready”;  to build up psychological resources and relational support.

 

But in time, whatever we bury before it is dead will come back to haunt us.

 

Authenticity is fundamentally about truth.  It seeks truth, loves truth, explores truth, and works at removing anything that might keep someone from living in truth.  And it is especially good at exposing and disposing of “zombies.”  As zombie hunters have special ways of searching for zombies, those who practice authenticity do as well….beginning with key questions:

 

Which periods of my life do I not remember well? 

What social situations do I feel especially anxious in? 

What are the big losses I’ve had, and what did I do with the feelings connected to them?  What emotions do I feel most uncomfortable with now?

 

Zombies are scary, but not nearly as frightening as a life spent hiding from them.