Evangelische Kirche

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor 1:3)

Evangelische Kirche

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Towards the end of my summer in Puerto Rico, I briefly began attending a church, but not long enough to get involved or remember the name.[1] In that church, it became immediately obvious that I should have attended church from the moment of my arrival because I would have met more people and learned more Spanish—I knew my English Bible well enough that I did not need to look up the translation when I read the Bible in Spanish. So later when I returned to Cornell University, I ordered a Spanish Bible from the American Bible Society[2] through the mail.

My experience with church in Puerto Rico led me to seek out a church immediately after I arrived in Germany. From my dormitory on Rosenbachweg, I was able to walk or take the bus to a number of churches, but most had one thing in common—few if any members. Most churches, even cathedrals, that I visited in Germany were empty on Sunday morning with only a few old widows and the pastor in attendance for worship. The exception, I learned, was a little village church, Kirche Herberhausen, which my friend, Hermann, drove me to one Sunday.

Kirche Herberhausen was different because it was packed every Sunday with women and students, many of whom no doubt attended Göttingen’s seminary. Every week worshipers would come in, grab a hymnal (gesangbuch) from a shelf near the door and have a seat—even the loft was full most weeks. Then at the appointed hour, the pastor would come in through a door in the chancel, give his sermon, and leave again through the chancel door—he never engaged the congregation in conversation or shook anyone’s hand. In Germany, clergy receive a government salary and are not dependent on the morning offering. In a Christmas visit to Germany in 1982, I learned that Baptist churches in Germany, who are not officially sanctioned by the government, operate more like American churches and one gets a hand-shake.

I remember the Sunday morning routine at Kirche Herberhausen clearly because I had to decide each week whether to walk or take the bus. The bus schedule either brought me to church very early or about ten minutes late, in which case I would not be able to get a scarce hymnal.

In my first attempt at using the bus, I arrived more than an hour early and, because the church door was locked, I stepped out for a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, whose door was also locked. But I noticed as I stood there that people kept walking by me and around to the back of the building. So I joined them going to the back of the building and through the door. There I discovered a room full of men—apparently, the tradition of frühschoppen (morning pint) amounted to men tipping beers while the women attended church. I later bought a hymnal and started walking to church, which was interesting because Herberhausen and Göttingen are separated by a beautiful park.

In addition to a hymnal, I bought a German Bible, complete with concordance, to supplement the New Testament with Psalms that I had brought with me from home. Like any typical student in those days, I traveled to Germany wearing my winter coat and carrying a backpack, which meant precious little space for a full-size Bible. Most of my biblical study at that point in my life was of books in the New Testament so not having the Old Testament did not crimp my style, but I came to love this new Bible.

My beloved German Bible never made it home. As I packed to leave for home, I was moved to ask a friend whether she needed a Bible. Being Catholic, she responded that she had never even owned a Bible so I left my Bible with her. Consequently, my only German Bible today—other than my New Testament with Psalms—is published by the American Bible Society and does not include a concordance.[3]

Shortly before I left Germany, I received admission to several university doctoral programs, including the one at Michigan State University, which I accepted in a long distance call from Germany. This call became an interesting talking point because the department secretaries perpetuated the rumor that I was myself German and every time a foreign student needed to be picked up at the Lansing Airport I got tapped with the responsibility. Of course, I did not mind at all because I met some very interesting foreign students, but I did not immediately learn the reason for my good fortune.

Between my experience at the Kirche Herberhausen and the influence of my friend, Jon, who had become a Lutheran pastor, when I studied at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan I began attending University Lutheran Church (ULC),[4] whose pastor was German. Like many university churches, ULC’s charter called for them to reserve a portion of their leadership positions for college students so I was quickly elected to serve on the worship committee and became chair of the committee, which meant that I also served on church council.

While I was happy to be of some use to the church, it was probably a mistake in view of my busy schedule with doctoral studies. Instead of fellowship and quiet time with the other students, I found myself engaged in long committee meetings focused on ULC’s stressful financial problems and discontent with the pastor. The financial problems arose because the church built a small cathedral without adequately estimating potential growth, only to find themselves strapped with a burdensome mortgage. The pastoral problems were compounded by weak and obstinate lay leadership. I remember being so frustrated with one attorney on the personal committee who instead of offering reports would dodge and weave reasonable questions—after a point I made it a personal policy to walk out of the meeting and read a book outside whenever he would make a report.

My mistake in taking on such responsibilities at ULC ultimately soured me on the Lutheran church, perhaps because I never really had a chance to enjoy it, and when I left East Lansing to live and work in Northern Virginia I returned to worship at Lewinsville Presbyterian Church, where my parents were also members. Still, it was at Kirche Herberhausen and ULC that I came to appreciate the usefulness of the liturgy for dispensing God’s grace in spite of the limits of our linguistic abilities and human frailties in our hour of need.

[1] I walked from my boarding house on Calle Manila in Santa Rita to church so it could have been several churches. However, it was likely las Iglesias de Dios Pentecostal.

[2] The date written in that Bible is August 20, 1978.

[3] The American Bible Society does not publish Bibles with concordances, in part, because the concordances pose a fault line in arguments on how to interpret scripture.

[4] http://ulcel.org.

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