Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: In the Bulb

 The origin of hymns, the life stories of composers: these usually aren’t something I obsess over, maybe in the same way I enjoy watching ballplayers or listening to music without needing to know so much about a quarterback’s or a guitarist’s love life or partying. But sometimes circumstances within which a hymn was birthed can help us to overhear a deeper resonance, and some untapped emotion.

Natalie Sleeth began publishing anthems in the late 1960s, and wound up conceiving more than 200 anthems for choirs. “In the Bulb There is a Flower,” a choral piece we know as the “Hymn of Promise,” sprang from a season in the mid-1980’s when she was “pondering ideas of life, death, spring, winter, Good Friday and Easter,” and also T.S. Eliot’s intriguing poetic line, “In our end is our beginning.” The words and music she penned were simple, eloquent, and beautiful.

And then, just a few days after putting the finishing touches on it, her husband Ronald (a professor of preaching) was diagnosed with a terminal malignancy. When he heard her play the anthem for him, he asked that it be sung as a hymn at his funeral. And so it was. He was only 63. She lived 7 more years, dying at age 61. I’ve sung it now at enough funerals of people I’ve loved that I get little choked up and teary any time I hear it.

Superficially, the hymn is about natural beauty. But what did Sleeth select from the world of nature? “In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed an apple tree, in cocoons… butterflies.” The beauty to come is hidden for a long time, in something that looks nothing like the beauty to come. Bulbs and cocoons are brownish and dirty; who would even fantasize that flowers and butterflies are gestating in there? A seed is tiny; who would dream it could become something tall and sturdy like a tree?

Speaking of fruitful: when she died at age 61, Sleeth ceased being productive. But her work is still bearing much fruit. Isn’t this the goal for all of us? You produce for a time. But your love, your words, you being can still be fruitful after you’re no longer productive, even after you’re gone.

When we bury our dead, even if we purchase a pretty casket or a velvety box for the columbarium, the body isn’t much to behold, with no life in it. God’s surprise, God’s gift, is entirely hidden from us – and yet surely there. It’s “something God alone can see.” God, even in the hour of death, can already see our redeemed, eternal life of joy, light and love. And so ours is to hope.

The hymn captures how grief works. When we have no words, when we shrink back in the quiet, “there’s a song in every silence.” I continue to be impressed by brave families who stand in our sanctuary and defy death by raising their voices in hymns. The loved one is now all memory – but “from the past will come the future, what it holds, a mystery.” We do not know what will happen next; we aren’t entirely sure about the shape of a reunion or a regathering to come. It’s “something God alone can see.”

The Eliot line makes us dizzy with paradox – and that is how hope works. It’s not the logic, it’s not our control, it’s certainly nothing automatic or even natural. “In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity; in our life, eternity; in our death, a resurrection” – and this victory is “something God alone can see.” It’s “unrevealed until its season.” In the meantime, in this season, ours is to grieve, and to sing, and to hope.

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