Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Ringing the Bells

Today, I’m thinking about churches. It is natural for me to think about these special places, spaces, bodies of people; I am the daughter of an evangelical pastor.

Sure, there are many criticisms out there about the travesties and tragedies associated with the Christian Church as a whole throughout history and today. Those conversations go on forever without many workable solutions. Sure, I regret terrible historical (and not so distant) events as well as contemplate what went wrong, why and how sad I am that those events have colored the rest of the good done through and by the church. Likewise, when I am aware of lives lost in huge natural disasters or airplane crashes, I don’t stop putting my feet in the sea, feeling the wind in my face or flying on airplanes.

Of things manmade--God inspired--on the face of the earth, nothing is more beautiful to me than a cross and spire rising above a town nestled between fields, hills or mountains. For me, huge cities are made more beautiful by their churches. Give me spires in the snow, amid pastures, rising out of a dilapidated downtown, spires of all heights, shapes and sizes. Let them ring, sing, or stand in silence. If the architecture is less inspiring, built of quick steel, cement block or appearing more like a rambling convention center, take me inside. Show me what art the people choose to display their faith and their love for God.

Let me hear their musicians, singers, preachers, congregational voices and liturgy. Whether I understand the language doesn’t matter. Let me sense the personality of the whole place. Let them light candles, max out their sound systems, sing slow hymns to the beat of an elderly organist, choke the parishioners with incense, stand and clap, solemnly kneel and sit or let their youth strum a few chords on a guitar. Let me feel among them the presence of the Lord God.

When the worship has finished and the last of the worshippers has gone home, let me wander the aisles and smell the dusty dark wood furniture, the distinguished flames, the plastic plants, the fading lilies from Sunday morning’s service. Let the place feel huge, lonely and foreign amidst icons or none. Let the silence of the church envelop me and press me to my knees. Take me to the back rooms where musicians and priests/pastors prepare/hide for the next funeral, baptism, wedding, and prayer. Don’t just give me a tour, let me participate or attend in some way, even if only for a few moments.

* * * *

Before we left for Sweden, Phil had found an International church in Malmö for us to try. We were there the day after we arrived. The church looked more like a sprawling mall with too little parking than a church, but the people were gentle and kind and we enjoyed the music and sermon (see “First Days in Sweden, Part 1, Day 2” a January post). But on our virgin drive from the airport, across that massive bridge between Denmark and Sweden (Öresund Bridge), and onto the E6 toward Höllviken, I spotted a church I wanted to photograph and one day visit.

Time went by. We kept attending Pingskyrken (Pentecostal) on Sundays. I was told about the Swedish Lutheran Church in Höllviken, Stora Hammars, where they had a small pre-school. There was a space open for our son, so he attended two half-days weekly and we participated in the parent-child social hours twice weekly. In this way, we made some dear friends and found our way into a loving community in a place where it would have been easy to get lost in the culture as a foreigner.

Come to find out, one of those parents to become my friend had worked at Stora Hammars Kyrka and a few other churches in the area, but was now working at a church in Malmö. Oh, okay. Hmmm. That’s interesting, and all that--until she described where it was. It was the very church I admired every time we passed it on the E6: The Tygelsjö Kyrka. What’s more, she told me she sometimes rang the church bell (“It’s not that big a deal,” she laughed, “I push a button.”). My brain started scheming about how I could go see the church and, just maybe, push that button! There were no church bells at any of the churches I had previously attended.

As our relationship had grew and we visited more often, I finally gathered up the courage to ask if I could shadow her at work one day and maybe even be useful. “Yeeessss.” She said in her easy sing-song-y way, as if to say what else should you expect. Of course she would have to get permission from her boss (gregarious and International in his own right, Pastor Jim) and work me into a day with few to no meetings.

“Could I ring the bell?” I asked, hopefully.

She laughed at me. Then she asked, “Do you know why we usually ring the bell?”

I guessed to announce services or the time of the day. What did I know?

“Yes. But often, it is to announce someone’s passing, the earliest weekday after they die, and usually at eleven o’clock.”

Ominous thought. “Oh,” I said.

She would have to find a good day for me to drive out there, so I left it at that.

* * * *

While we were in Jerusalem, we saw the inside of the Church of the Transfiguration (Mt. Tabor), the Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem), the Church of the Beatitudes (Keneseret or Galilee), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the chapels dedicated to the stations of the cross. I saw the spacious courtyard and outside of the golden dome mosque, the outside of the Church of All Nations and Christ Church (Jerusalem) and attended the King of Kings Community Church of Jerusalem (Messianic).

There were ancient stones, stained glass windows, arches, chandeliers, statues of the saints, urns, banners, tombs, candles enough to choke, theater-like seats and presentation, A cappella chorales, groups taking communion, etc. Inspiring, overwhelming, mystifying, unfathomable, disgusting.

I became frustrated with the commercialization of the story of Christ. A regional Nazarene pastor in Israel reminded me, “If it were not for these churches, many of those places we read about in the Bible would have been lost to development.” So it is, was and is to come.

It also struck me that Israel is in a religious war zone. Try to stay neutral and it still costs. It doesn’t matter what your background, humans are hard-wired for faith and religion—but not necessarily the same belief systems.

* * * *

One day the phone rang (a rare occurrence for me in Sweden). It was Annika.

“You were asking about going with me to work one day,” she began.

“Yes,” I said, trying to stay calm, but anxious to hear what she had to say.

“How about Tuesday? The boss says it is okay for you to come. And you could ring the bell.” She said this as if to dangle a carrot in front of my nose, but I was already biting!

* * * *

While in Sweden, we saw so many churches it is difficult to name them all. Most of them we only saw from the outside because they were closed to tourists during the winter. There is a chance you might know the names of them from your own experience, but there is no way I could list them all, here. Lund’s Gothic Cathedral is a famous one, but I was fond of the tiny countryside churches. We saw the 2008 Ice Hotel chapel. We saw churches in Germany, Denmark and Finland. Go anywhere in Europe and there are churches. What’s more, you may find an International (English-speaking) congregation meeting in the side room of a cathedral, a coffee shop, or a shopping center (searching the internet ahead of time is a good idea—meeting times vary).

* * * *

The day to visit my favorite church in the Malmö area changed around a little. No matter. When that day arrived, I got ready for “work” as if it were my first day on the job—complete with butterflies in my stomach. The slow, but less frustrating drive through agricultural fields and tiny villages did well to calm my nerves and help me take in the beauty so evident here in the growing green fields, the freshly plowed earth, grazing horses, and the glint of the sea in the distance. Slowing to a near crawl through tiny, narrow, cobbled streets worried my timeliness (I’m time challenged, anyway). I didn’t want to be too late to ring the bell! Such a crawl kept me from missing the tiny intersection and street opening to the Tygelsjö Church and offices.

I parked my car in the nearest parking area. For a moment, I simply took in the site of this beautiful building from front to back (facing its Southern side), the sky and the flowers blooming around the grounds and cemetery, and the horses frolicking in their corrals. I was also trying to take a few deep breaths and not get too anxious.

Not knowing where to enter, I cell-phoned my friend. Beautiful Annika was soon leaning out the door of one of the white office buildings, phone to her ear, waving for me to come on in. The butterflies in my stomach stirred.

* * * *

Three years ago we went on a cross country road trip through the northern states of the U.S. Many of the churches, built as community gathering places for each small town (I’m now convinced many of them were built by Swedes), were boarded up, abandoned, transformed into ELK’s lodges, galleries or coffee shops. My heart leapt whenever I saw a folding sign board out front: an announcement of a church potluck, AA meeting or Bible Study. The church would continue as they have for years to help those in need of fellowship or help, even if barely holding on and standing up—not all of them are corrupt!

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I’m in need of fellowship, help and the ability to help others. I need God in Christ Jesus. I need an evangelical church—anywhere I am. Call me weak, but it would only be true.

* * * *

Once in the building, the copy machine in a room beyond the entrance and the stuff of offices made me feel at home. I have worked in church offices before, so the casual atmosphere and camaraderie, both of which were immediately evident, didn’t come as a surprise.

Annika was gracious to give me time to take in the surroundings, look out the windows at the beautiful view, and set my purse and lunch down before taking me around for introductions and a quick tour of the old Parsons home made into offices.

She showed me the record closet. It was narrow as any closet, but deeper and wall to wall with tall, thick old books and thick plastic binders. She slid one of the old books off of the shelf and opened it for me to see. There, in beautiful hand-script were dates from the late 1800’s and names--lines and lines of names—mother and father names, leading to the names of their begotten. She showed me another book listing the physical and mental ailments of past parishioners. My mind couldn’t hold it all and I neglected—in a kind of awe and respect (as well as a bit of horror)—to take any photos of these pages.

Afterward, I was led to the common kitchen/dining area where Annika, Pastor Jim and I shared tea and buns (I call them rolls) and compared the American church to the Swedish church, the historical church to the present. We ran out of tea before we ran out of subject matter.

“You see,” said the dapper but tall, dark-haired gentleman, Pastor Jim, “the Swedish church has a lot of history to deal with. While Sweden is a Christian nation, it was made so by force, not by choice.” Not too long ago, the Swedish Church was the police, Big Brother, the watchdog, the jailor. “The main duty of the Parson was to record births, deaths, illness, relocations, make sure everyone lived within these confines and paid their taxes. A person was not allowed to choose his or her church. A person attended the church within the kommun (county) he lived.”

I was all ears. These ideas were strange to me, though I am well aware that some people expect the same to be true about more free churches around the world.

“A Pastor in Sweden has quite an image to overcome. The way of Jesus Christ is what comes to the mind of Swedes when they think of the church.” (Comments are not necessarily exact quotes, okay, Jim?)

Pastor Jim had lived in the Eastern United States for several years, so he loved talking about the U.S. and his time there. We enjoyed comparing notes on what the people are like in the U.S. versus Sweden. “I have a pastor friend in Ohio (was it Iowa?) who is Swedish. He has told me that the people are so friendly in the mid-western United States that he sometimes says, ‘it’s getting on my nerves!’”

It was time for Pastor Jim and Annika to return to their desks. I was assigned a copy and stick labels job—not unlike what I would have done in my last office job. Also, as in my old job, the labels had already gone through the rollers for printing before we realized they were the wrong size for the master. No big deal, I was good at seeing what could be salvaged and it kept me busy while my mind reeled from our conversations and the presence of those old books.

Meanwhile, assistant pastors arrived in jeans, but played “quick-change” and came out of various corners wearing black suits and taking a quick lunch around the long white table in the kitchen. The whole “house” smelled like a gourmet restaurant. I was still full from fika, so waited to have my lunch later. While I was being introduced around the table, (I was even introduced to the Organist of the Tygelsjö pipe organ!) Pastor Jim came out of his office wearing a long, black ministerial coat and adjusting his collar. The time was growing near for the funeral and nearer still for the ringing of the bells. This was all in a day at the office for the people buzzing around the kitchen.

Though both Swedish and English mingled with the odors of bleu cheese dressing, lasagna and other lunches, I tried to stay alert to when I would be needed to ring the bell. If I fussed that I should get back to my labels, everyone would tell me to take it easy, there would be time for that later. There was both a rush and a calm about the way these church men and women handled the upcoming event in the church.

The black suits had already disappeared out the back door of the kitchen before Annika calmly asked if I wanted to go on over to the church. I was a nervous wreck of anticipation and worry about the time because I had been told we would need to press the button at an exact time.

Annika showed me where the bell buttons were (inside the stairwell to the bells just off of the foyer), took me up another set of stairs to see the organ at the back of the church and told me it was soon to be replaced at the tune of several million kronor. She took me down the aisles and onto the platform where a pedestal baptistery from the 1500’s stood among other beautiful platform furniture.

She urged me to follow her into side rooms off of the platform to see the ministerial robes and choir robes neatly hung in the old closets or folded in large but narrow drawers. A few of these robes were over 100 years old.

She let me look at the story dolls (I’d seen see-through boxes of them on a conference table at the offices), set up to tell Bible on draped tables to the side of the front right pew. She showed me the large quilt that her mother-in-law, a seamstress, had sewn a new border. (This quilt was for the lower grade coffins. One could cover the coffin with a quilt to beautify the presentation.) The quilt matched the details in other areas of the carpets, walls and linens.

When the casket was being carried down the aisle, before anyone had yet arrived for the funeral, I followed Annika to the foyer to get my instructions from the associate pastor on how and when to ring the bells. (“Push ‘lilla’ first, for the little bell, then ‘gran’ next for the large bell, then reverse the order when I give you the signal.”)

Women held small bouquets of fresh wild flowers and flowers from the garden as they entered the building. When I asked about this, I was told that most often only the women bring fresh flowers in honor of the deceased-- an old but charming custom.

I was still gawking at the women and their flowers when I was hurriedly urged in hushed tones to “press the first button NOW!” These were simply large plastic buttons like one would find behind a stage. There was a delay before bell-peal, but I was urged to press the next button barely before hearing the first. Because I stood in the bell tower stairway, the bells were quite loud. Those in the sanctuary were insulated from the loudness as the double doors between the foyer and the sanctuary were closed.

Annika and I fumbled with my camera to try to get a sound recording of the bells—we ended up getting a funny video. All you see are the plain wooden stairs while you hear the ringing of the bells. Before I could stop fumbling, I was urged to press the button for the large bell, then the button for the smaller bell again. I loved hearing the tongues slow from loud to silence. Before there was silence in the tower, the organist was playing the prelude.

I ran up the stairs, the area Annika calls the fly cemetery, to get a glimpse of the bells from inside the tower. Though I saw piles of dead and dusty flies, mounds of pigeon turds and walked through several spider webs (the spiders in Sweden can rebuild swept away webs within a few hours)*, I was disappointed that I had only reached the old chain and frame. A ladder led another floor up into the actual bell area, but there was a rough wooden hatch over the opening. I had worn a white jacket and didn’t feel like getting dirty moving the hatch. Out of breath and perspiring, I tiptoed back down the circular steps.

It was difficult to settle down (from panting) when we slipped into the back of the sanctuary while the people sang a hymn. Though I couldn’t understand many of the words the retired woman minister delivered in her opening statements and invocation, I could feel the compassion and solemnity in her words.

Annika had told me earlier that the deceased had visited the office the week before. She had been a spry eighty-something year old, very active in the church and community and surprised her family and everyone else by dying peacefully while watching television and taking her morning tea.

When the people stood to sing again, Annika and I tiptoed to a massive side door, difficult to close quietly, to go back to the office. No doubt, my special tour of the church was keeping her from her normal day.

We ate our lunch and got back to work only a short while before we both had to head home to retrieve our children from daycare and the nanny.

It’s funny how one can have such a wonderful opportunity, realize how short it is (four hours) and to regret the photos and notes not taken. Nonetheless, the experience endeared me all the more to my favorite church in Sweden!

* Annika told me that Kalle, the janitor in the church who helped me with the bells, has to clean that awful stairway. She said it had been cleaned only a few days before my visit. I was glad they didn’t let it go more than a few days at a time!

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