I’ve been to LOTS of churches and chapels and places of worship on my Sabbatical. I visited churches here before I left for Europe. We hit (accidentally) a number of youth services. So the worship wasn’t always the “usual” service. But I enjoyed those lively services immensely. It was fun to hear the youth - much like our own youth - reflect on mission trips and God’s presence in their lives. It was especially refreshing, inspiring and renewing to go to WAPO after my time in Germany, Norway and Iceland to see the Spirited lively pulsating worship at camp! God is at work! I left WAPO thankful.
I don’t know what I was expecting of the churches in Europe. I knew that it would be different and that, in Europe and in Scandinavia, the population was less “religious.” I also knew that the church in Norway had been a “State Church” - and so was expecting some differences. But I didn’t know how hard it would be to go to church to worship!
I visited a lot of churches. But many of them felt at first blush as if they were more like museums.
This was especially true in Norway. The Stave churches in Norway are old. Really old. In fact, there seems to be a bit of a competition between the churches and their historians as to which church was the oldest. And also a competition for which was the most "authentic." Especially in comparison to our churches, these churches are really old- some date back to around the year 1000. But what was more interesting to me than the preservation of the "oldest" was the churches that kept adapting and changing - slightly to meet the needs of the time.
The churches are also really small. They are like a small chapel, with room for maybe 50 people. It turns out that when they were built, they did not have long sermons - maybe not sermons at all. Consequently, they were not built with pews or chairs. There were benches along the edges for the elderly and the children. But services did not last long so they did not need to have pews.
That changed however. One thing that lengthened the worship service was that the pastors started preaching! There were other changes too - after the Reformation, the liturgy which means “the work of the people” became much more engaging of the people - and so the worship service lengthened... and people needed to sit down. Other changes that occurred were in the ornamentation. Stylistic changes were made between the gothic and the baroque periods. Interestingly enough, the Trondheim cathedral in Norway took so long to build that the bishop in charge switched styles so it has gothic styled pillars on the first floor and more ornate baroque pillars as the cathedral rises to the second and third levels.
Some of the changes were unfortunate (in my opinion). In some churches, especially in Germany, some of the reformers (not Luther) preached against art forms of any kind in church - seeing them as a form of idolatry - they beheaded the statues. (it seems odd to me that they didn’t simply remove the statues - but it looks as if they were violently beheaded as if these marble statues were living examples of the devil’s presence in their churches. )
Most of the churches that we visited were absolutely beautiful - on the inside AND in the surrounding graveyard. This was very remarkable in Norway. The graveyards were blooming. Literally. The families - or a paid caretaker - keep an amazing range of annual flowers blooming! One gravesite was more beautiful than the next! It was STUNNING.
This caused me to wonder: We saw people on Sunday afternoon going with their trowel and bringing more flowers to the graves. The church was locked - but the church yard was blooming! Hmmm.
Church culture is very different in Norway than it is here. The Evangelical Lutheran Church is a “state church.” The government pays for the upkeep of these churches and the clergy are civil servants, i.e. governmental employees. The king is required to profess a Lutheran church membership. In addition, baptism and Confirmation are important rites of passage. When we stayed with my brother-in-law’s relatives, they told us that Confirmation was such a big event and the churches were so small that unless you were a family member, you could not attend church on that day. Judging by the advertisements and photographs in the windows of photographers, “Confirmation” is celebrated as a rite of passage. Confirmation pictures are taken - like our high school graduation pictures. Marriages used to happen in the church. But now, according to wikipedia (not the best source) the leading use of the church is for Confirmation and for funerals.
A huge exception to this is the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim (See the blog on Nidaros Cathedral for the story of this cathedral). We (My mother, sister and I) spent three nights in the housing for pilgrims who travel - by foot - from all over (Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England) on a pilgrimage to this cathedral. (They also rent rooms for those of us who travel by bus, boat and plane.) It was a very interesting group of people however and we enjoyed having breakfast with the pilgrims each morning and hearing their stories. The pilgrim pastor was also insightful. He said that people travel as pilgrims for many different reasons - some spiritual, others for the physical challenge and still others have personal reasons or searchings - but that regardless of the reason they start the walk, they all seem to learn and grow and find something in the journey. His job is to welcome them - and he does, without judgment.
Each day that we were in Trondheim, we went to the Cathedral at Nidaros. There was worship every day - and each day it was different - and meaningful. One day the worship was combined with an organ concert. There are two organs at Nidaros Cathedral, one more beautiful than the next. The worship - including the fantastic music - filled the huge reaches of the Cathedral - and my soul. It was beautiful. On another day, the pilgrim pastor took us and some other pilgrims on a small walk-through and led us in a worship at one of the little chapels. This time, worship was simple - yet beautiful. On the third day, the dean or lead pastor of the Cathedral led a worship in multiple languages. This too was beautiful. The Cathedral acts as a welcoming place for pilgrims, for tourists and has a congregation of the people of Trondheim. God was clearly at work in each of these ways at Nidaros.
Yet we still wanted to go a regular church. We had been told services were at 11 a.m. Almost always. So we decided to drive to Fagernes church. Fagernes is the name of my mother’s church in Wisconsin when she was growing up and so we thought it would be very fun to go to church in the Norwegian Fagernes church. It was a drive over the mountains - and the hotel clerk told us it would take about 2.5 hours, so we allowed 3.5 hours - figuring that I would drive slower than he did over the mountains! It was a BEAUTIFUL Drive (more about that later) and we arrived in the town of Fagernes at 10:30 a.m. We stopped and asked directions to the church. Unfortunately, this was the one place where the natives did not speak English. The road was torn up but after much ado, we got there - at 10:55. But the parking lot was empty. Wrong church. There was a note on the door that said the church was closed due to the road construction and that worship would be at the hillside church (read mountain). We had seen a church on the mountainside - and through my sister's excellent navigation we managed to wind our way along the mountain roads to the church on top of the mountain. The view was spectacular. Clearly the people could worship God in a place like this! Except… there was no one there. The flowers and the view were magnificent however - so… it being after noon at this point, we had our own devotion and prayers and hoped that there would not be Confirmation the next week when we stayed with my brother-in-laws relatives. There wasn’t — but they told us that their pastor and the neighboring pastor were a clergy couple and that they were on vacation for two weeks - so there wouldn’t be any church services. I was disappointed.
We had visited the folk museum in Lillehammer which had traditional buildings, including an old Stave church, and costumed interpreters explaining Norway’s history. So I asked the young woman who was explaining the church about the faith-life of people in Norway. I asked, “Why don’t people go to church?” She said, “The church belongs to the government. Faith is something that is personal - if people believe at all. That’s just the way it is here now.”
I found that her assessment very depressing. I was also disappointed that we never got to a “regular” church service. Our worship ended up being with other English speaking tourists in Wittenberg were we sang “A Mighty Fortress” with gusto - and with interesting combination of tourists/pilgrims/art & music fans in Trondheim. These were wonderful experiences. Yet they were tourist experiences and so I wondered. I wondered what God was doing in Norway amidst the Norwegian people. We saw great evidence of God’s presence as we talked with the pastors and the pilgrims at Nidaros Cathedral. We saw God’s presence in creation - how could anyone not see?!. But just as some of the people on the train were sleeping as we past through mountains and phenomenal waterfalls and lush green forests, I wondered if they were asleep to God’s presence as well. Maybe they just didn’t have eyes to see God’s presence. As we were pondering the church in Norway, someone suggested that maybe we need to send Missionaries to Norway! Maybe. But then, as we were reflecting on our journey, another one of my faithful family members remarked on how cool it was to see the VBS pictures in one church. And another reminded me of the great role that the church in Leipzig played in the peace movement. Yet another reminded me of the evidence of activity within the church. The church at Vaga was selling the old “authentic” wooden shingles to pay for their new roof! So… maybe I despaired too soon.
Quite by chance (or was it?) a couple of days after returning from Norway, I received a poem by Elizabeth Browning in an email from a dear pastor friend of mine. It spoke to the mystery of how God works in the world:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
— Elizabeth Browning
What an invitation! Let’s open our eyes to see God’s work in our world and take off our shoes in awe and wonder. Let’s give thanks for the gracious gifts God gives to those who have eyes to see - and when our eyes are too clouded to see, at least let’s give thanks for the blackberries.