Ears to Hear
I was surprised a few weeks ago when I realized I had stopped hearing the bells. They had not stopped ringing; I had just stopped hearing them. Nestled amid small adjoining valleys, the villages of Otterberg and Otterbach frequently ring with the peals of church bells as they chime over the valleys and ridges. Their sound, echoing at both predictable and seemingly random times, was one of my simple delights when we first settled into our two weeks of required COVID ‘quarantine’, after arriving in Germany.
Admittedly, this became bitter-sweet when I later confirmed that the bells and their proud brownstone churches, like many all over Europe, are now barely show-pieces or cheap real estate. Many have been converted to museums, little more than relics of a bygone era, tourist stop-overs, or worse yet, simply spaces to be bought and re-purposed to some bizarre use. The most visible one in Otterbach is now an automobile museum. Yet the bells still ring speaking to anyone with an ear to hear.
Searching for the meaning of the bells
Once our ‘quarantine’ ended, we were glad to hop onto the public transport, taking our first ‘city’ trip, to the Mall in Kaiserslautern. As a friend guided us around the kiosks and small shops that flanked the modern mall, the traditionalist in me warmed to the sight of the grand, probably centuries-old, red-stone church in the city center. Its imposing presence and the donging of its noble sounding bell seemed almost out of place and appeared to not to make an impression on anyone but me. It was now simply a marker of the unrelenting passing of the city’s busy hours. I longed to break away from our ‘tour’, to enter its grounds, and to explore its sanctuary. “Would I find anything of living faith residual behind its sturdy stone walls?”, I would have to wait for another opportunity.
“Would I find anything of living faith residual behind its sturdy stone walls?”, I would have to wait for another opportunity.”
For members of the older neighborhoods of our small village, the local church bells still seem to serve to call the remaining faithful to worship, though mostly, they too seem merely to toll the passing of someone’s soul to its eternal reward and perhaps to chime the news of life’s more joyous passages—christenings, weddings and such. Tradition still holds an ardent few to regular masses or vespers at a nearby Abbey; otherwise, the bells simply announce other public events or the passing of time.
It was about our second month here that I realized that I was not hearing the bells any longer. “Is it a seasonal thing?” I had wondered once, in passing notice. Then a few days later, sitting near a window in a quiet moment, I heard them ever so faintly. The sound was so mixed in with other household and community sounds that I had to check with my husband to make sure it was the bells. Thus, sensitized again, I started to notice them more and more, along with the occasional distant bray of the donkey, the chatter of the resident flocks of birds, and the gaggle of school children walking by on the priority road—all of which had also faded into background noise with the arrival of our household goods.
I had reasoned that it was likely the muffling effect of our furniture in the house now— with the open spaces, glass doors, and marble-tiled floors no longer causing sounds from outside to ricochet, unhindered, indoors; or maybe the windows in the garage, which had been jammed open for a while when we first moved in, now finally being loosened and shut fast against the quickly cooling temperatures…? We had successfully shut ourselves in, physically and metaphorically, away from the sound of the bells and other sounds of life, I concluded.
Unstopping Deaf Ears
Yet one instance of a reflective moment near a window was enough to re-attune me. I started listening, silencing the stressors of keeping house, while unpacking and organizing ‘stuff’, and soon started hearing them again, both the sounds of the created order and the church bells. I realized it was not merely the stuff, it was the distraction and cares of life that I was allowing to seep into my new world: Old worries dragged across the Atlantic merged with concerns of our new season.
Just as I now wondered how to order our household stuff in our new living quarters, I also wondered if there would be place in this new society where I would fit for three years at least. These worries proved to be effective sound barriers, cancellers at least of the voice of creation and of the call of the church bells—the one remaining vestige of the disappearing ship of Germany’s grand Christian heritage.
The physically strong and ornate, but now empty, church buildings, sound a stern and somber warning, as though God has removed His candle-stand from another overgrown man-made institution that forgot its original purpose. This nation now labelled ‘Post-Christian’, along with much of Europe, was once the ignition point for the Protestant Reformation of the corrupt Medieval Church institution.
The warning echoes in the words of the Apostle Paul in his address to the Athenian Areopagus, Acts 17: 24-31—“God does not dwell in temples made with hands…” Rather, as Lord of heaven and earth, He determines the historical time periods and geographical boundaries of nations. His purpose for those pre-determinations is also clearly stated by Paul, “So that they (the inhabitants) should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.”
“…that they (the inhabitants) should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.” Acts 17: 27
So, though our instinct for hospitality, like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, might be to provide a dwelling place for the Divine, God, even from Jesus’ incarnation, seemed to make it clear that He has no need for dwellings made with human hands. His habitation of choice is the human heart humbled by its awareness of its desperate need for the One who gives life and breath to all things.
It now seemed obvious to me, in light of my own (microcosmic in comparison) drift away from hearing Otterberg’s bells, how the ship of this great nation’s heritage of faith could have slipped from its moorings and drifted away beyond its cultural and societal horizon to the place where, on its watch, the horrors of WW11 and other evils could be hosted. The same set of contrary influences that runs personal faith aground influences national culture in the same way. Jesus outlined them in His parable of the Sower:
- The direct acts of the arch-enemy, satan, who is described as stealing the Word which the hard-packed heart fails to appropriate and cultivate in a timely fashion;
- Tribulation and persecution because of the Word of God forfeits the harvest of faith for the rocky heart which does not permit truth’s roots to penetrate;
- The last and perhaps most insidious, is the heart over-grown by the thorns representing the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches that smothers faith’s good harvest.
Though this grossly oversimplifies a couple centuries of historical, political, and socio-economic details, ultimately the failure to take the Word of God to heart sets vessels of faith adrift without rudder, compass, or anchor.
Hope on the Horizon
These reflections would have caused me to turn away in despair, as I considered Germany’s spiritual state and outcome, had I not chanced to take a second look at a little neighborhood flier that is dropped unbidden in our mailbox each week. It usually would be put straight into the recycling bin, as it’s in the German language, but I happened to notice the picture which graced the front. It was a nativity scene depicting the entire Christmas Story, in hand-sewn figurines, from angels to animals. I reached for my phone and, bringing up the translation app, read of the Abbey’s plan to stage a drive-by Nativity service, for which the picture was an advertisement. I was pleasantly surprised at this sign of life!
Subsequently, I learned that these nativity scenes, done in various hand-crafted media are the mainstay of the Christmas markets (Weihnachtsmärkte) which are the highlight of the season here! Though the markets have been cancelled due to COVID restrictions this year, I was thrilled that here, among the ordinary folk were vestiges of the heart of the faith yet evident! Though not promoted in schools as reality, nor evident in the popular culture, except as corrupted mis-appropriation of the Advent Calendar, but there it was—The Nativity, real Christmas, still visible as the center of folk art for Christmas!
Could the ship of faith be returning over Germany’s horizon? Three ships maybe? Testifying not of the return of the virgin ‘Mother and Child’ this time (as one old carol suggests), but of the returning King—the landlord, master, or nobleman to which Jesus often referred. The parables spoke of the Kingdom of God, the Day of the Lord’s return, Jesus’ Second Advent. An even greater testimony are churches planted here which are seeing great growth despite COVID. We have been fellowshipping with joy in one such context and have been edified this Advent season as one faithful pastor has incorporated these same locally handcrafted figurines into his Advent messages. Blessed are those whom the King finds prepared: waiting and watching in readiness, whether declaring His Gospel in the Marketplace of ideas like Paul, or by producing handcrafted figurines for a Christmas market that tell the old Story to a distracted people or a watchful congregation.
The people of Otterberg like to get out, beyond the walls and take long walks on the trails that meander through the hilly forests and skirt the cultivated fields. No doubt they see the soil, hear its groaning donkey, its chattering birds and love their lively children. They might even admire the heritage and tradition represented by their century’s old buildings, including their churches; but pray that they develop ears to hear the message creation speaks, as Otterberg’s bells mark the passing times, seasons, and hours. And pray for sent ones to help usher in a revival of the testimony dormant among the folk— Good News of the One through Whom God has spoken in these last days— His Son, Jesus, the returning King.