This Sunday, at the beginning of our worship service, we’ll sing the tune “Old Hundredth” composed by Louis Bourgeois (c. 1512-1560), who, in the middle of the 14th century found himself at the center of a heated controversy we’ll call Psaltergate. The trouble started when, in 1550 Bourgeois took it upon himself to ‘improve’ the psalm tunes for some of the more well-known psalms in use in Geneva at the time, having these published in the annual printing of the Psalter for that year. In doing so, he ran afoul of the law for having, without a license, ‘changed the tunes of some printed psalms.’ While this may sound trivial today, it was taken very seriously in 14th century Geneva and Louis was sent to prison. If only Twitter had been invented 500 years earlier. “@realJohnCalvin “Bourgeois better think twice next time he changes a hymn tune” #don’tmesswiththePsalter.” After a day in jail, Calvin himself intervened and Bourgeois was released, but Psaltergate had permanently damaged his reputation in Geneva and the next year Bourgeois relocated to Lyon, eventually resettling in Paris where he took to writing secular songs and seems to have even converted to Catholicism!
Now, 466 years later, the travails of Bourgeois can seem quaint and not a little absurd, but to the actors involved, the issues were quite serious. Recently I was counseling a neighbor who has become so upset at what he reads in the news that his physical and mental health are suffering, but he can’t stop reading. He’s caught in a loop. There are indeed serious issues, those involving human suffering, but there is a healthy helping of the absurd and getting mired in it can drain our energy for the important work we can do to make the world around us a better place.
On Sunday, to Bourgeois’ tune, we’ll sing “For why? The Lord our God is good; his is forever sure; his truth at all times firmly stood, and shall from age to age endure.” I promise not to change the tune.