Romans 8:26-27; Ephesians 5:15-20
Text: Anonymous, African-American Spiritual Tune: Traditional, African-American Spiritual
R/Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray.
1. Upon the mountain my Lord spoke Out of His mouth came fire and smoke Looked all around me, it looked so fine Till I asked my Lord if all was mine.
2. Jordan river, is chilly an' cold It chills the body but not the soul There ain't but one train, upon this track It runs to heaven, an' right back.
3. Down in the valley, when I feel weak It's when the devil, usually speaks Because he's crafty, and full of lies I need the Spirit to keep me wise.
It was a bright October Sunday in Tønder, Denmark. The golden leaves were swirling in the streets and sidewalks as I entered Christ Church where Hans Adolph Brorson (1694-1764) had been a pastor while he wrote many of his hymns. (See Hymn 37 and 47) It is a richly decorated church from Brorson’s time when rich lace merchants supported the church lavishly with their gifts. His picture is on the wall; the pulpit where he preached is an imposing structure on the left. As I walked in, the usher gave me the bulletin and said, "Fünf." Meaning I was the fifth to come. The service was in German, which had been the language of half of the congregation at Brorson’s time, and still was. Brorson had been called to serve the Danish speaking members.
My German works when I read it; hearing it is a bit harder. But when the preacher mounted the pulpit and began I realized I would be able to get the main idea. The text was Ephesians 5:15-20. “Do not be drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.”
He spent much of the sermon on the difference between being filled with wine—drunk—and filled with the Holy Spirit. Luther’s translation had a nice rhetorical balance, being filled (voll) with wine, vs being filled (voll) with the Spirit. It also works somewhat in Norwegian, fulle vs fylt.
While not a particularly new idea, in another language it seemed much neater, probably because of the nice sentence with its repetition of "voll." When the Spirit fills us, it causes us to praise, to sing, and make music in our hearts to the Lord. That is a deep understanding in the church of what the Spirit does: it makes the Word living.
The African-American spiritual, rich in Scripture, makes the same point: it is the Spirit who helps us pray and speaks for us when we cannot even utter our prayers. It intercedes and moves us to prayer. (Romans 8:26-27)
The spiritual uses the double language of the oppressed. Moses on the mountain with God who speaks with fire and smoke. The singer sees how things look, but to whom does it belong? Crossing the river Jordan, a trip over from captivity, which the ancient Israelites passed over at the end of the Exodus, is the way to freedom, but it can be difficult, like the final barrier, Ohio River, “chilly and cold,” but once across one is free; the underground railroad will go back and forth to free slaves but also it speaks of the release that comes from dying.
We are coming up on Pentecost this Sunday. The birthday of the church. For the past eight weeks, at least, churches have been closed for fear of spreading the corona virus. Now we are wondering how to open up the churches for worship. There are big issues here. One of the first big infectious events in the US was a choir rehearsal in Washington that spread the virus through the choir, some even died of it. This makes the experts wary of group singing. Some have suggested that people can gather but not sing. Can this be done safely? Can it even be worship without our singing, especially for Lutherans?
Singing together is a mark of the church--Jesus sang with his disciples--and has been forever. The conversations about this have been politicized and become quite difficult. Those who receive this blog have found comfort in the singing of choirs and congregations on Youtube. I pray our conversations will be led by the Spirit who causes us to sing and make melody together. The Christian faith is physical—touch is essential to our sacraments, hearing and seeing, speech and song--our senses bring us together. We have gone into isolation to prevent the spread of the virus through our being together. But being together is the essence of Christian worship. We long for the day when we can make music together, in person. Meanwhile, let the Spirit make music in your hearts. "We need the Spirit to make us wise."
Anonymous seems to write the best tunes and texts. The spirituals came together as people working together starting singing some kind of a melody that got worked over, and then words were added in the same way: one would sing a line, another would revise it a bit and then add to it by another. Tracing the origins are nigh impossible, but they teach us a great deal about the lives of the slaves taking Scripture and their life of faith for all it is worth. Now, thankfully, they are fundamental to the treasury of world song.
William L. Dawson (1899-1990) The director of the Tuskegee Institute Singers, arranged the most frequently sung anthem version of the spiritual. Dawson, after a difficult childhood, ended up studying music at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, played the trombone in the Chicago symphony, and in 1931 began his tenure at Tuskegee where he made the choir one of the great choirs in the world. In 1955 he resigned and continued his stellar work as composer and scholar of African American music.
Congregation and choir
Tuskegee Institute Choir, arranged by William Dawson
St. Olaf Choir, Anton Armstrong, Director
Moses Hogan Singers
Doris Akers and Choir
Tapei Chamber Choir