We were just in time for a short worship service. “Let’s sit. Let’s listen,” we said. Let’s pray.
If you could only understand one word of a sermon, what word would it be?
The question went through my mind last week when I was in Berlin, Germany, on vacation. My wife, Carol, and I had rented an apartment through Airbnb. We’d bought ourselves guides and maps, had emailed all the friends who had been to Berlin for their advice. I figured we were well prepared.
But I had forgotten what it was like to be in a country where I didn’t really speak a word of the language. I knew lots of words in German, words I’d sung in choir from Bach and Brahms, great holy words for peace, prayer, God, the Holy Spirit. But those weren’t really going to help me if I couldn’t figure out which way to turn when looking at a map.
“Lots of people speak English,” we were reassured. And they did. Beautifully. Responding to our hesitant query, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” they would say “A little.” And then prove they knew a lot.
Moreover, in the museums, most of the captions were in two languages, German and English. So when I was at the Pergamon, for instance, looking at the enormous blue-tiled gate, I could find out that it was from Babylon and built by King Nebuchadnezzar. The same King Nebuchadnezzar who back in sixth century B.C. promoted the biblical Daniel for correctly interpreting his dreams.
I asked Carol to take a picture of me with the lions on the gate. I imagined they looked like those Daniel faced in the lions’ den, although the captions couldn’t help me there.
It was when we visited the bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church that I wished I really had more German. First we toured the ruins of the old church, one that hasn’t been rebuilt since the Allies destroyed it in 1943. Inside there was a plaque commemorating the Protestant martyrs who died during the Nazi regime, people like the courageous Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spoke out against Hitler. And there was a cross made of nails from the tragically destroyed British Coventry Cathedral, bombed by the Germans in 1941.
Then we stepped inside the new church, entirely illuminated with stained glass. Someone handed us a brochure. We were just in time for a short worship service. “Let’s sit. Let’s listen,” we said. Let’s pray.
The Lutheran pastor in his black robe and white collar welcomed the small group in the pews and then began to preach.
In German. No translation. I looked at him and concentrated, wishing that I had the gift of understanding foreign tongues given to the apostles at the first Pentecost.
All I could do was reflect on the horrors of war, never far from you when you visit Berlin. According to our guidebook, 92 percent of it was bombed. You still see vacant plots of land in the middle of busy urban areas. What was the pastor saying?
I searched through my small lexicon of sung German, lyrics from the great composers, and the one word I could hear him say over and over again was vergebung, German for forgiveness. My country and his country had once been enemies. We’d fought a terrible war. Millions of lives were lost. Terrific damage was done. But what could two Christians say to each other in the aftermath, even after all these years? “Forgiveness.” It was the only way to a lasting peace.
I gave thanks that the Germans and Americans have lived in peace these 70-some years and have been friends. But it started somewhere. Forgiveness, on both sides. It could never be forgotten.