Saturday, July 19, 2008

On Over-spiritualizing Things

When I was a kid, maybe 5 or 6 years old, I went to the local Lutheran Church with my grandparents. I remember odd things like playing with the kneelers (to the annoyance of everyone in the row), going up to the front of the Church for the children's sermon (I don't remember actually being up front or any of the content of the sermons, of course) and asking my grandma for gum during the service (and her graciously giving me half a stick of Freedent). None of these things explain why I feel warm towards Lutheranism to this very day, that story belongs to another post. This one deals with one other element of a traditional Lutheran Church service that I still vividly remember.

On the wall toward the front of the Church, in plain view of everyone in the congregation, hung a metal (or possibly wooden) sign with slots to easily insert and arrange numbers corresponding to the hymnals in the pew, so that people could find the hymns prior to them being sung. I guess these are called hymn boards, but I surely didn't know that as a kid. I simply had a grand time finding the hymns for the day's service and proudly giving a well-marked hymnal to my grandparents. I'm sure I thought that I deserved that half-stick of gum.

When I got older and started thinking more deeply about worship services and how best to prepare myself for and engage in corporate worship, I grew to appreciate the idea of the hymn board, even though no Church that I'm currently affiliated with uses one. In the days before mass duplication of weekly Church bulletins, it seems like a great way to let people know what hymns would be part of that day's worship. But that's only the pragmatic reason. The spiritual reason for finding the hymn board so impressive is so that people can look up and contemplate the words of the hymns prior to the start of the service. If someone comes to Church about 20 minutes early they can easily meditate on the sermon text for the day (which is posted on the street sign outside of my childhood Lutheran Church) and contemplate the day's hymns in soul-preparation for the day's liturgy. This all seems like it could foster an aura of spiritual preparation. That's the kind of thing lacking in Churches where a large portion of the congregation comes after the service has already started.

But today, as you either know or could have guessed, I found out the real reason for the hymn board. And the reason, while quite remarkable, contains no hint of concern for soul-care. I finished the summer '07 issue of Christian History and Biography, which focuses its attention on the life and work of J.S. Bach. In issues that focus on an individual, Christian History and Biography usually has an article highlighting other influential figures of the time period. In this particular issue, the article highlights Lutheran musicians between Luther and Bach. One of them was Dietrich Buxtehude, a Lutheran composer and organist from the late 17th - early 18th centuries. From here I'll let the author of the article, Carlos Messerli, explain.

"Buxtehude was a virtuoso organist, skilled in improvising. Many of his pieces featured a chorale melody in either simple or highly ornamented arrangements. His very elaborate musical introductions often left the congregation in the dark about exactly which hymn was to be sung next. This confusion led to the practice of posting the hymns (by number) on a board visible to all, a practice that was still common in many churches throughout much of the 20th century." (p.22)

So, I guess I let my imagination get away from me a bit on that one. Not that people can’t use the hymn postings for spiritual preparation; they can and they should. It's just that the original intent wasn't nearly so lofty. Buxtehude indirectly gave us the hymn board, for which I thank him. And I thank the author of the article for pointing out reality, to which I'll allow my beliefs about the hymn board correspond from here on out. But I'll refrain from thanking myself for the over-spiritualizing of the whole thing. In fact, I'll take it as a lesson for the future.