Traditions are a big part of our lives. There is a comfort in the familiar – and that is especially true when you are traveling. As a stranger in a strange land, sometimes you just want something that feels like home.
That may be why I had an ice cream cone at McDonald’s in downtown Bucharest. Mind you, it must be 20 years since I last had a cone at McDonald’s in Canada, so it really shouldn’t have been a reminder of home. Perhaps the attraction was not the familiar as much as having something cold on a hot sunny afternoon – and at a bargain price, the equivalent of 35 cents Canadian.
Far more familiar is the Marienkirche in Lippstadt, Germany. Members of my wife’s family have been worshipping there since the building was constructed in the 13th century. Back then it was Roman Catholic, but it has been Lutheran since 1521, if I remember correctly. On my first visit I was told the switch happened after Martin Luther preached there. Later I was told it wasn’t Luther but someone else, perhaps Melancthon? I speak no German, which means I may not have gotten things right in translation. Every time I visit Lippstadt part of my tradition is to visit the Marienkirche, even though very little about the place has changed over the past few centuries.
Vivian’s family has deep ties to the church. At the rear of the sanctuary there is a massive altarpiece, several stories high, which was donated by one of the branches of the family sometime in the 16th century, or maybe earlier. It’s not to my taste, and I can see why it was moved to the back of the church, it kind of dominates, but it is a piece of family history. More recently Vivian’s grandfather served as pastor of the church for I think about three decades.
I remember my first visit, almost 30 years ago. I spoke no German, but I wanted to experience a worship service in the building that holds such an important place in family history. I didn’t understand anything that was said or sung, but I do remember the offering totals for the previous Sunday were printed in the weekly bulletin. I may not read or speak German, but I could puzzle out that much. The offering had been less than 100 Marks (the currency used in Germany before the introduction of the Euro). Extremely low by North American standards. That showed me something I had known intellectually but had not seen first-hand before: the Lutheran church in Germany is a state church. Its primary support comes from taxation. The small amount given as an offering was coming from people who had already given once “at the office” so to speak. I guess there wasn’t much incentive for most people to give anything extra.
This year, my German being no better than it was in 1986, I skipped the church service. I did still go inside for 10 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, just to look around and remember. The Marienkirche seemed unchanged, which I suppose is a good thing. Churches are supposed to provide stability to a community, which means change should come slowly. When you enter the Marienkirche there are aspects of the building that are essentially unchanged since the 13th century. What goes on inside has, of course, changed since that time as the form of Christian worship has changed as society has changed. Whether that change has been good or not is a matter for debate.
Physically the Marienkirche still dominates downtown Lippstadt. It once also dominated the cultural and spiritual life of the surrounding community, but I suspect that is no longer the case.