By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published November 24, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
On our national day of thanksgiving, I reluctantly watched a cartoon on the journey of the English émigrés, the pilgrims, who sought religious freedom by settling in North America. While I love cartoons, I am unfamiliar with the newer Peanuts animated television specials and they clash with my nostalgia for the older ones.
Repeatedly the character Linus, who has always been the idealist, responded to the worries of friend Charlie Brown by urging him to “have faith.” After the second or third time, I wondered: have faith in what?
It reminded me of a feel-good song from the 1998 cartoon “Prince of Egypt,” which told the story of Moses (Moshe) and the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. After the movie’s climax, pop stars Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston triumphantly sang, “There can be miracles when you believe.” The other lyrics of the song implied it was belief in one’s self, not God, that mattered.
Even in cartoons about religious people, God seems to be the twin of the fictional villain Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter children’s novel series. It seems God too is “He Who Must Not Be Named.”
For those who don’t know U.S. history, Thanksgiving Day was established by our government as a national holiday to give thanks to You Know Who for the blessings and gifts received throughout the year. Next Sunday marks a time with an even deeper history however. Within a week begins the traditional Christian season of “Advent,” which is from the Latin for “coming” (adventus). The following weeks are a time to remember the long wait of humanity for a promised savior as well as a time to prepare our own hearts to welcome God anew. Let us Christians do so with thankful hearts.
From Oak to Acorn
A local fast food clerk once asked my dad where he was from. My dad replied, “Germany.”
She persisted, “No, what country do you come from?”
My dad repeated, “Germany.”
“Oh,” she said disappointedly, “I thought you were from someplace in Europe.”
My family dates back at least to the 12th century at Vorhelm in western Germany when a forebear sold himself to the local bishop to avoid being drafted for war duty. After the war ended he bought his freedom. In 1812, the Rieping homestead had to quarter French troops because it was on the supply route during Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia.
About 1929 my grandfather Heinrich asked for his inheritance early and moved his young family of four to Klein Karlshoeh in Silesia, now western Poland. There my family suffered again from war when Adolf Hitler followed in France’s footsteps by invading Russia. Drafted into service, my uncle Hugo and his horse stepped on a mine during the attack on Stalingrad in Nov. 1942. He’d turned 19 only days before.
My father Josef, the eighth of 11 children, had a mischievous streak like myself. At age 6, he found a naturally hollowed tree in the woods near his home. Discovering the inside resembled a chimney, he lit a fire within. Nazi soldiers spied the smoke and, suspecting the worst, soon arrived. Josef fled and evaded the soldiers in the woods for hours before escaping home late that night.
When Josef returned home, he expected to be punished for extreme lateness. But after hearing the truth my strict grandfather proudly praised him and made sure he ate before going to bed. At the time my dad was confused at this unusual leniency. He later realized my grandparents feared to openly criticize the Nazi government, which encouraged children to report their parents to school authorities and punished dissenters harshly.
Around 1945, Russian soldiers came asking for my grandfather Heinrich. My grandmother Helene used the excuse that she was washing dishes to send my 8-year-old father to lead the soldiers to her husband, who was in the fields raking hay. My dad obeyed, and the soldiers took Heinrich away to a prison camp. As a large landowner, my grandfather was guilty of being influential in a tiny community.
That summer, at the urging of a Catholic priest, Helene fled west with her eight children; the youngest was only 3. Josef turned 9 during the trek. After bribing a border guard not to shoot for five minutes, the family made it across a kilometer-wide “no man’s land.” The story of my family would continue, and would lead across an ocean and a continent to California.
How do you compress an oak tree into an acorn? God does it every autumn, and in the same way the sum of a family’s history is written in you and I. All of us are a product of the past, and that is why history is important.