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Worship, Symbol, and Memory

Over the years, scientists have found empirical evidence for things that have been practiced for centuries and known by anecdotal evidence to be effective. Compounds found in local plants that have been used by remote cultures for centuries are now being tested and often developed to treat — and sometimes cure — all sorts of diseases. Leeches have been redeployed in a variety of uses in surgery and now in pain relief for some people suffering from arthritis. And now, just this past Sunday (February 26), the journal Nature reports evidence showing a very strong link between symbols and memory.

Those of us who worship, in whatever cultural tradition we have come from, have known this for millennia. Worship in nearly every culture has almost always taken place in a context of rich symbolism supplied by art, music, dance, and ritual movement by the people and their presiders. The earliest description of spiritual gifts in the Scriptures are those of the artisans, weavers, furniture makers, builders, and workers in gold, precious metals, and gems employed to build the tabernacle that would become the moveable center of worship for the people of Israel, and some centuries later, the temple in Jerusalem. The high level of detail offered in the Scriptures about the vestments, furniture, utensils, tapestries, altar, and altar ware, as well as the specific sizes and materials to be used would have been no surprise, nor viewed as "indifferent," to those who lived in the ritual world of God's people, Israel. Every detail, every symbol counts, because every one of them both expressed and encoded the identity of the God who called them into relationship and sent them into ministry in the world.

But for those of us who have been raised in Western cultures, and especially those of us who have been deeply formed in Reformed Protestant and/or rationalist traditions, symbolism in worship has become something we approach with at least skepticism, if not outright hostility. Huldrych Zwingli, the sixteenth century reformer in Zurich, Switzerland, led the town council to order the removal and destruction of statues, the whitewashing of walls and ceilings, and the removal of nearly everything symbolic, including the stained glass, from the more than 400-year-old Grossmünster church where he had become the pastor. The theological rationale was that all the symbols were connected to "image-worship," a practice forbidden by the second commandment. Christian worship, taught Zwingli and many in the subsequent Reformed tradition, needed to be primarily about the Word rightly preached and the ordinances (he rejected the sacramental teaching of the Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Calvinist heritage) rightly administered. The most (or only) important symbol is the Bible itself and the hearing of its words; anything else is distraction, if not idolatry. The rise in the eighteenth century of rationalism and its emphasis on written words rather than visual symbols or ritual action as the most important or only valid conveyor of truth tended to reinforce this "anti-symbolic" bias not just in Reformed religious communities, but in nearly every aspect of life in Western cultures.

But now, from the heart of rationalist scientific analysis, emerges a different learning. As reported in Nature, recent studies suggest that our brains appear to be wired in such a way that we are far more likely to be able to remember words and events when they are preceded by or surrounded in symbols than if we are presented with just words or events alone. And more than this, if the symbols are visual but the words are just aural, we're far less likely to remember them than if the words are also visual. The study made extensive use of EEG to identify activity in the brain under all circumstances tested, and it consistently found that what happens before an event — whether a symbolic cue that calls us to address the meaning of what follows is present — is a very accurate predictor of the likelihood that the event will be remembered and the accuracy with which it will be remembered. Other studies in neurophysiologyhave also confirmed that if smell, taste, and ritual movement are involved, memory is even more enhanced.

Look around your sanctuary. Where are the visual symbols that you can point to, or call attention to, that will support the ability of your congregation to remember what matters in worship? Calling folks' attention to those symbols is important — not indifferent — in determining whether or not the experience becomes an encounter with God that people will remember.

Where is your font? Is it visible for all to see, or perhaps use regularly, as a vital reminder of their baptisms? If you're doing a baptismal renewal or a baptism, can everyone see everything, including the water (and perhaps the oil, if you use it here or at confirmation) and what's happening with it? We can now clearly say that reading the words from a book without a full immersion (pun intended!) in the visual symbology makes this a less memorable experience, yet we are called continually to "Remember your baptism, and be thankful!"

Where is your Table? Is it a Table or an altar? Is it large and ample or small and awkward to use? It is visually at the center of your life or hidden behind other chancel furniture and hard to access? What, symbolically, do its dimensions and location teach and help people remember — for good or for ill? If you're at Table, is everyone who can see able to see both the Table and the actions of the presider? Is the Table cluttered with symbols that don't really belong to the work of the Table? If there is a Bible on the Table, but that Bible is not actually used in worship, what does that cue the congregation to remember (or not remember) about the meaning and purpose of the Table in your life together as a congregation in the body of Christ?

And now look at yourself and your congregation in the act of worship. How do you as a presider (if that is your role) provide physical, visual symbolic cues to precede or accompany the words you say or that you and the congregation say, sing, hear, or read? What symbolic cues of gesture and posture by the congregation can help reinforce the likelihood that everyone will remember each element of worship in the most appropriate way? At baptism, do you move to the font and call your congregation's attention to the font? Do you pour out water into the font at the beginning of the rite (as is suggested in the rubrics in the hymnal on page 36) so all can see (and hear!) the water being poured? Do you offer gestures of "pouring out" over the water and the people just preceding or accompanying the words "Pour out your Holy Spirit to bless this gift of water and those who receive it"? At Holy Communion, do you just read words, or do you find deep, flowing, embodied ways (suggested only in stills, as it were, by the rubrics in the hymnal) to offer visual symbolic support and so strengthen the possibility of "deep remembrance" by all who gather every time? How do you prompt the congregation to act in visual, symbolic ways that help you all remember not just the words or even the symbols in your brains, but the power and meaning of the entire ritual in your bodies?

How will you help your congregation's experience of worship, in whatever form it comes, be more memorable?

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