Archive | July, 2016

Your words need more melody

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It’s funny, isn’t it, how certain comments will stay with us and gnaw at us and maybe grow more irritating the longer we think about them?

Or maybe it’s just me. I work in the world of words, after all, and I like to string them together in what I hope are interesting ways. And so when I hear a curious comment, or a word that hits my ear at an odd angle, I think about what it might mean.

I don’t know if investment bankers or stock analysts do this, but I do.

“Your German needs more melody” is what my German teacher, Frau Proksch, said to me a couple of weeks ago in Berlin. I was officiating at a wedding at the end of the week, in nearby Potsdam, and so after several wearying days of intensive language classes, I asked her if she would coach me a little in the lines I planned to speak at the wedding.

After we practiced a few times, she said unexpectedly: “Your German needs more melody.”

When I have dared to use a German word in a sermon (not such an odd thing to do in a mostly German-speaking congregation), the typical reaction has been laughter. Like the time I used the word ankommen to make the idea of Advent a little clearer, there was laughter, which was a bit disconcerting because laughter was not the response I was going for at that particular moment. And ankommen is not an especially funny word. What was funny was that I dared to speak it at all.

Anyway, I’ve thought about the melody of my spoken words lately and have decided that my words are not the only ones that could use more melody. I have been listening to a few of the speeches at the political conventions in the U.S. these last two weeks, and I have to say, there isn’t a lot of melody. A lot of shouting, maybe, a lot of anger, but not much melody.

Could it be that my problem is really the whole world’s problem right now, or at least the part of the world I come from? Could it be that there is so much anger and cynicism and (at least in my case) despair right now that melody is in short supply?

The psalms have become my favorite devotional reading in the last weeks and months – mainly the laments. I need someone to express for me, in spiritual language, what I am no longer able to express, in spite of that love of language I mentioned earlier. In Psalm 137, a psalm filled with anger and cynicism and despair, if there ever was one, the writer reflects on the exile to Babylon and states that his words too have lost their melody: “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

The idea is that the circumstances are so wretched, so hopeless, that it has become impossible to sing. I know that foreign land. I am there now – not Switzerland, but a spiritual place, a land of fear. My words have lost their melody.

“By the waters of Babylon –

                there we sat down and there we wept

                when we remembered Zion.”

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Stumbling upon the Stolpersteine

index (25)During my intensive language learning last week at the Goethe Institut in Berlin, I went for walks at the lunch break – Mittagspause! – to rest my weary brain and to learn a little about where I was.

As it turned out, I was in an interesting place – near Alexanderplatz and the Hackescher Markt in what was (until 1989) East Berlin.

Not far from the door of the Institut I stumbled upon three Stolpersteine (pictured above), a word which literally means “stumbling stones.” Stolpersteine, a word my exceptionally patient teacher Frau Proksch taught me to pronounce, are part of an art project by the German artist Gunter Demnig to commemorate victims of National Socialism at their last place of residence.

The stones are actually concrete cubes, 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters (3.9 inches by 3.9 inches) fitted with a brass plate and inscribed with the name and life dates of the victims. As you walk along Neuer Schönhauser Strasse, where the Institut is located, you see several of these Stolpersteine, and then you realize that people who once lived here were taken from their homes and deported to extermination camps.

The project started fairly small – in the German city of Cologne – but has expanded to 50,000 Stolpersteine in more than 280 cities in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and others, for a total of 18 European countries.

I confess that I had never heard of the project before, and now that I have seen it (or a very small part of it) I can’t get it out of my thoughts. It’s a deeply moving sight.

The majority of those commemorated of course were Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but other Stolpersteine have been placed for Sinti and Romani people (then called “gypsies”), homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black people, members of the Christian opposition (both Catholic and Protestant), the Communist Party, military deserters, as well as the physically and mentally handicapped.

The German people I know are not proud of their history, but to their credit they seem determined to remember it, acknowledge it, and learn from it. I hope other people – let’s say, American people – will take a look at this project and learn something from it as well. Too many other people could make it to the list of victims.

stolpersteine auf Deutsch

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(Photos: At the top are three Stolpersteine, located just steps from the main entrance to the Goethe Institut. The other photos were taken along Neuer Schönhauser Strasse. By the way, there really was “free cold beer” at Pepe Jeans London. I went inside to find out. Also, the dessert was crème brûlée, and it was very good.)


 

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A prayer for Sunday morning

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Lord, it gets harder to pray these prayers.

You must have noticed how I struggle. How could you miss it?

I stand on Sunday morning, I face my congregation, I do my best to look strong and confident, and I say, “Let us pray.”

And then I wonder what I should say. What is there to say?

Sometimes I think of the week just ended. Do I begin with Istanbul? But then I think people must be tired of hearing about that. And besides, it’s so depressing. Forty-one more deaths? We come to worship to have our spirits lifted, not to be reminded of the latest bombing, shooting, attack, massacre, disaster, or whatever. Frankly, I lose track of them. Weren’t we just talking about Orlando, or Brussels, or Paris, or Baghdad, or Kabul, or was it Mogadishu?

There are so many, Lord. We are no longer shocked. We have become numb. We hear the news and think, “Not again.” It’s hard to feel anything anymore.

Forgive us.

Other times – and I know this should happen more often than it does – I suddenly remember where I am. I remember that I am standing in your presence, your holy and majestic presence. I am speaking to you, the one who created everything out of nothing. And I am leading your people in prayer. I am praying on their behalf, and I know they are counting on me to get it right, to say what needs to be said, to express what is on their minds and in their hearts.

When I remember where I am, and who is listening, it’s then that I can’t go on. It’s then that I realize how inadequate I am to the task, how pathetic my words must sound. They certainly sound pathetic to me.

Forgive me.

Almost as an afterthought I remember to thank you for what you have given to me – to all of us – and I even name a few things, but the truth is, everything we have is a gift from you, all of it, every last thing. We are blessed people.

When I have said everything I can think to say, I say, “Thank you.”

Because I am thankful.

Most of the time.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

And hear my prayer.

(Photo: Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem)

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