March 22, 2015

In the Midst of Life…

Passage: Psalm 130

I wait with longing for the Lord, my soul waits for his word.   —Psalm 130:5

John Rutter was born in London in 1945, which makes him 70 years old this year. He composed his first choral piece at the age of 22 when still a student, and in the last 50 years has become probably the greatest living composer of sacred choral music in Christendom. I can’t think of a greater.

Some church musicians say that in the last 25 years of the twentieth century, Mr. Rutter singlehandedly rescued sacred choral music from extinction after it had almost been killed off by guitars, boom-boxes, and snare drums in the 1970’s and 80’s.

He wrote this Requiem in 1985 to honor his father, who had died two years earlier. Mr. Rutter says, “My father loved music and had a good musical ear, but he was a chemist, and had no formal musical training, so when I sat down to write my requiem, I wrote something that I thought would please him if he were sitting in the first pew of the church.”[1]

Before he even began composing the piece, he’d invited a friend of his, a choir director from a Methodist Church in Sacramento, to give the first performance. So this choir he was writing his Requiem for was a choir just like ours —accomplished musicians, but mostly volunteers, not professional choristers, and Mr. Rutter wrote a piece that they could excel with. When Mr. Rutter wrote his Requiem, he was seeing faces like yours. Mr. Rutter is known for music, which is, in his own words, “fairly inclusive.” I love that way of thinking about it: the music is “inclusive.” It’s different from—oh, let’s say—Mahler or Bartok or Stravinsky, which can be exclusive because of its difficulty. You could also call it “accessible.”

The Rutter Requiem is filled with darkness and light, with despair and hope, with the minor and the major, with jarring dissonance and sweet melody, with death and with life. At this particular time in my life, I am finding that the darker, more discordant parts of the Requiem are speaking to me with greater resonance and poignance.

I think that might be because it seems as if I have been spending a lot of time in dark places—for instance, the Intensive Care Unit at Evanston Hospital; the Hospice Center in Glenview; my friend’s living room, which is beautiful and sun-washed, but also sad, because he died there in a hospital bed.

I’ve only been here a year, but I’ve made some pretty good friends in that short time. Four of them have died in the last six weeks–Eddie, Bill, Steve, and John. And since I’ve been spending so much time in dark places, the somber Agnus Dei, for example, the fifth movement that we’ll hear in a moment, feels like a timely gift from God to me. It is a healing therapy to my broken heart.

I hope you will pay attention to both message and medium of the Agnus Dei —to what it is saying but also to how it gets its point across, because it is a six-minute, comprehensive catechism on the Church’s ancient teaching about death and resurrection. In six minutes, Mr. Rutter’s Agnus Dei gives us: (1) Death: The Problem; (2) Death: The Question; (3) Death: The Complaint; (4) Death: The Answer; and (5) The Resurrection Victory.

(1) The Problem: from the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery; he cometh up and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow. That’s the problem that prompts The Question: “Of whom shall we seek for succor?” Over and over and over again: Who will help us? The women ask that question; underneath, the men are giving voice to The Complaint: “in the midst of life, we are in death.” Those are the very words of the 1662 Prayer Book: in the midst of life, we are in death. Even in our happiest days, even at the zenith of health, we are beset by death; we are besieged by it.

And the women’s question keeps cycling round till it builds to a desperate, pleading crescendo: “Of whom shall we seek for succor? Whom?” But then comes the answer to the desperate plea; actually it’s been there all along: “Of whom shall we seek for succor?” “Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world.” The Lamb of God will deliver us out of our misery. And then with a motif from the flute everything makes a turn for quiet, for rest, for peace, for light, for lux and requiem: “I am the resurrection and the life, and whosoever believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” In Jesus Christ, a decisive, if quiet, victory of life over death.

Can I tell you how much that means to me and to Lisa and to the choir at a time like this? Can you see why it feels like a timely gift from the hand of God a few days after we lost John, our colleague and leader? “In the midst of life, we are in death,” is the Prayer Book’s plaintive plea, but in his resurrection, Jesus turns that plea into a brave, ringing affirmation: in the midst of death, we are in life. We have felt it; we have experienced it this week: in the midst of death, we are in life.

Would it surprise you to learn that John Rutter is not a very religious man, this guy who has spent his entire career conducting church choirs and composing this celestial and spiritual music for them? He describes himself as an agnostic; he says he does not know whether the ringing affirmations of the requiem are true. But this is what he says: “We don’t know that life ends in perpetual life and joy and peace; it might be nothing more than wish fulfillment. But I think the faith and hope that it might be is one of the things that sustains us, and it doesn’t hurt to make a statement about that.”

Do you know Emily Dickinson’s poem:

I’ve heard an Organ talk, sometimes
In a Cathedral Aisle,
And understood no word it said—
Yet held my breath, the while—

And risen up — and gone away,
A more [adoring] Girl—
Yet — know not what was done to me
In that old Chapel Aisle.[2]

We’ve been so blessed to have John Bryant in our church and in our lives these last three years. Because of John, we’ve heard an organ talk sometimes, in a cathedral aisle, and understood no word it said, yet held our breath the while, and risen up, and gone away, a more adoring church, yet know not what was done to us, in this old chapel aisle.

So this whole worship service is a celebration of the resurrection, and a long song of thanksgiving to God for God’s gift of John Bryant. And you know what we’re going to do in a couple of minutes, at the end of our worship service? We are going to break a sacred, solemn, serious, usually splinter proof rule of Christian liturgy: we are going to sing ‘Alleluia’ during Lent. Now, if you were once Roman Catholic or Episcopalian or Lutheran, you know that this is just never done. It’s not politically correct; it’s like using the salad fork on the entree—you just don’t DO it. We always give up our Alleluias during Lent. We pack them up and put them away on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, and don’t take them out of the closet again until Easter Sunday. Lent is too sad a time to sing Alleluia.

But here at our church, we have been so blessed that after the death of our friend John, we are compelled to sing our Alleluias even during Lent. Now, don’t tell the Episcopalians across the street that we’re doing this. If they found out we were singing Alleluias during Lent, they’d fall down in a faint right there in their own sanctuary. But we’ve been too blessed to be silent, even during Lent.

So this is what we’ll sing:

When in our music God is glorified,
And adoration leaves no room for pride,
It is as though the whole creation cried,

Let every instrument be tuned for praise,
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always,


[1]Some of the information about the Requiem comes from a series of videos the composer produced to help listeners understand how his Requiem works. Here is a link for the first of eleven short videos:

[2]The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960), #183.

[3]Fred Pratt Green, the hymn “When in Our Music God Is Glorified.”