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Author’s note: this is the second in a series of reflections written as letters to my mom, but you can insert your name here, too.
I hope to highlight some of the events and insights I have had since moving to Germany in 2014.

Dear Mom,

We’re settling in well here in Hannover and I am enjoying getting to know new friends from around the world. That our kids attend an international school is a privilege I don’t take lightly, and I enjoy having friends from so many new places.

However, it has brought up another unexpected encounter. People are very surprised to find out I am a practicing Christian! I have had a number of encounters where people have asked me directly if I “really believe all this stuff” in terms of my Christian commitment.

In my German course, when we had learned enough words to share with the class our profession, my teacher was shocked to find out I was a pastor (that’s “pastorin” auf Deutsch – the feminine form of pastor). He asked if I truly believed everything about Christianity. I think he was hung up on the virgin birth because he asked about that a number of times. I didn’t have a grasp of the language well enough to convey to him that since I have devoted my personal and professional life to Christianity, I would certainly hope I believed it! But I understand that doesn’t always go hand in hand…

As we were settling in Hannover, our friend Paul was acquainting us with the city and the church. When I asked him how many Reformed churches there were in the city, and he responded with only one, I think I coughed in shock! Only one?!? Coming from West Michigan I couldn’t imagine moving to a new city with only one Reformed church. I was a bit disillusioned with God’s plan for us here when I originally got to know our local congregation. The community usually has around 50-60 worshipping on a typical Sunday.  I grew a bit depressed when on Palm Sunday we didn’t do anything special to mark the day.

But here is the conundrum: there are so many indications of the remnants of Christianity, and in some ways I have witnessed more Christian action than I have seen in the United States recently.

On Confirmation Sunday our church was packed! Yearly, in our congregation, between 15 to 20 young adults complete a two-year confirmation process. It remains a popular and vital ministry of the church. I couldn’t believe how full the church was on this day. OK, yes, it is perhaps a cultural rite of passage. On the other hand young people are getting two full years of solid teaching on Christianity plus whatever religious education they gain in school.

Don’t even get me started on the Christmas season in Germany – the Christmas markets! The rhythms of Advent Sunday 1-4! They even give national holidays for Good Friday, Pentecost, and Ascension Day (I think this might be my favorite culturally peculiar one: it’s also Father’s Day so the men go into the forest and drink beer together).

I marveled at how the German people welcomed millions of refugees into the country over the last few years. Again, there are layers upon layers of cultural and historical baggage that go along with that. Still at the end of the day I witnessed people working at gathering donations of bikes so people had some form of transportation as soon as they had housing. In addition, they gathered clothing and food, offered free language lessons, and offered free childcare as parents took those language lessons. They even asked the government for more refugees because their city had space for more and were so moved by the experience of “welcoming the other” that they were prepared to do the process again. In my mind, that is the strongest Christian witness I have seen when an urgent need called for it.

So, Mom, it’s a conundrum. In some ways 21st century people can’t imagine you actually believe in what I can only assume they consider a throwback to an ancient and outdated religion. Yet there are so many traces of the Christian identity still at play in Germany. I came across these verses from Colossians the other day and felt like they were pertinent to my new situation: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4: 5-6).

Our prayer is that our lives will be full of grace for those who don’t know Christ, and that I’ll be equipped to answer everyone who wonders how in the world an educated person could believe in this thing called Christianity.

More soon!

I love you,

Gretchen

Gretchen Schoon Tanis

Gretchen Schoon Tanis moved to Hannover, Germany with her husband Phil Tanis (Executive Secretary of Communication for the World Communion of Reformed Churches) and kids Jon and M.E. in the summer of 2014. She is a minister in the Reformed Church in America, with a Ph.D. from Kings College in London, England. Currently she is practicing the arts of a Hausfrau, pastoring an English language congregation, periodically teaching youth ministry, and splitting her attention between her favorite football (soccer) clubs Arsenal (of London) and Hannover 96 (who have been demoted to the second division this season so things are not looking very promising!) 

6 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Christendom. Has its benefits!

  • Tasha says:

    Living in Hannover, what church are you pastoring at?

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    As James 2:18 says, show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” Also James 1:27 reminds us that the “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” Of course, I wish that all people could have both faith and deeds, but sometimes I wonder which one takes priority. Maybe that is what the men were discussing over a beer in the woods on Father’s Day/Ascension day…

  • Norm Steen says:

    I find these reports fascinating. Thanks so much…

  • RLG says:

    Thanks Gretchen for your reflections on your move to Germany. I’m quite sure you are living in a religious culture quite different from that of Western Michigan. The number of churches there attests to that. The fact that you and your husband are educated folks but still hold on to the hard to believe teachings of Christianity would naturally baffle them. As you pray that God will equip you for giving an answer for the hope you have in Christ, also pray that God will give you ears to hear their arguments against Christianity. You may find their beliefs are well reasoned and make sense. Christians tend to be quite closed minded when talking about religion and faith. Dialogue is a two way street.

  • Heather says:

    Gretchen,

    This was beautifully written and really struck a chord with me on a day I needed to hear it, funny how that happens.

    I really love this: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4: 5-6).

    Thank you for sharing.

    Heather

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