Musing Memory and Music

Dear Patrons of Beauty,

On Saturday morning it was my privilege to participate in the memorial service for Elizabeth Gottlieb, a child of our church who grew to be a soprano of significant renown. A few months ago she received a cancer diagnosis, and her life ended just 10 days ago. Because so much of her love was lived through music, her choirmates from the Chicago Symphony Chorus, the Grant Park Chorus and Music of the Baroque came to the memorial service to offer tribute through song. Our sanctuary resonated with majestic music.

For my musing today, I wish to share with you the words of my homily. I trust they bring solace to those bereaved and inspiration for those who must carry on. 

In the face of untimely loss, those chaotic moments of the soul when we find our minds and hearts contemplating the grand themes of existence—love, pain, hope, aspiration, soul and eternity—our thoughts turn quite naturally to…opera.

I arrived late in the final act. Doreen Sterba DeZur, a lifelong member of this congregation who knew the Gottliebs years ago as companions in our Cherub Choir and Sunday School, works as a part-time chaplain at Elmhurst Hospital. Doreen informed me that Elizabeth Gottlieb, daughter of Jennette, was a patient with a difficult diagnosis, and perhaps I should pay a pastoral visit.

So, I stand here as one familiar only with the last pages of the libretto. You, gathered here as family, friends, neighbors and colleagues, have experienced the rest: the chorus, the arias, the wardrobe changes, the grand choreography and lush set designs, the quartet formed with her siblings, the gracious duet of her marriage to Martin, the crescendo to a trio with the birth and vibrance that is Sarah; you are the patrons and conservators of the magnificent score that was the life of Elizabeth Grace Gottlieb.

If you think my metaphor is overly dramatic, please forgive me; for in the days before she fell into the sleep that ended with her awakening into eternity, she told me she was preparing for her final concert.

And that’s our problem today. The final strains of the closing moments are fading into echo, and we are left with the memories; no more curtain calls, no encores, just the magnificent blessing of having been on the stage or in the audience as witnesses to the grand event that was her life.

What I have learned from you in the past few days is how Elizabeth’s life was not performance—although it was not bereft of occasional drama, it was that rare and truly artistic expression of authenticity. And you will be talking about those moments of breathtaking beauty—the phrasing, the blending, the authenticity of art and music that was her life—for many years to come.

I have the awkward role of stumbling onto the stage after the concert as the dramaturge, the person who is supposed to add words and verbal interpretation, attempting to convert the beauty and wonder rightfully seated in your hearts into some cerebral understanding in your minds.

It is the ambivalence contained in the uneasy relationship between music and religion. We’re describing the same things: eternal values, expectations, experiences; I must confess that music often does a better job than preachers on occasions like this. It’s difficult for me as the preacher to tell the vocalists to stay in their lane.

Except I must confess, we are, all of us, struggling with the same concern, the question of the presence or absence of God.

"Where is God?" we might ask. Has God been the constant companion in the performance of our lives, the stronger voice that carries our weakness as we are told in the smarmy Footprints poem? Or is God the benevolent director who precisely pulls from us our best? Or is God the taskmaster trainer or coach who corrects our very breath in the name of some unattainable perfection?

In life, God is present in all of these roles, but today in worship, on the occasion of our grief, our celebration, our confusion... God is, I suggest, the audience, witnessing alongside us the grand event of a life concluding perhaps sooner than we had hoped, but so wondrously beautiful to have experienced.

Scripture is full of references to God’s reaction. We think sometimes God is the critic who, after it’s all over, spends pages of evaluation enumerating failures, catching mistakes, highlighting error.

But in reality, God, who knows the fullness of who we are, by the grace known in Christ, is the one who, when the echoes fade into silence and we are breathless for the wonder of it all, begins that solitary slow opening clap that brings the house into full roaring ovation.

My heart still overflowing with music, I remain,

With love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your Pastor