Handel’s Messiah


I have had many experiences over the years that have reinforced the importance of opening my mouth and letting Christ fill it. It takes some practice to begin to learn how to remove your own thinking from the process, to trust that the right words will flow, and not edit them as they come out. That’s the easy part. The hard part is having the courage to say the words. I have had many wonderful experiences, and I’ve interfered with that process a few times, and had some spectacular failures.

I’m going to tell you two stories, this one is a wonderful success. My next blog will be about one of my more classic failures. Let’s start with the success. I like those way better.

During my incarceration in Wasilla Alaska I was privileged to sing in the MatSu Community performance of Handel’s Messiah 19 consecutive years. The last five years I conducted it. It was a lifetime high.

Even though the MatSu valley is small in population (about 70,000 people) there is a lot of talent there. The years I conducted we had a fine orchestra with 15 to 20 pieces, and a hundred or more singers, with a full complement of fine soloists. We were often told that our performance of the Messiah was more accomplished than the Anchorage Symphony performance. I always attributed that to the fact that we sang for the message and joy of the music, not for the thrill of performing.

Our orchestra was about 75% non-LDS folks from the community. Some of them were very accomplished, all of them were good. The chorus consisted of a hundred or more people composed of about 50% non-LDS people. The fact that they were present was a triumph of promotion done by Terri, my wife. She called every Christian congregation in the valley, printed fliers and mailed letters –for years. She campaigned on the phone and face to face. It was a hard and frustrating process because the nearly universal response was that Mormons were non-Christians, and they wouldn’t have anything to do with us. She worked at this for 3 years before community people began trickling in to participate. The last 3 years the mix was, as I noted above, more community folks than LDS.

We wanted the performance to be of the community even though we funded and promoted it. We wanted it to be an experience where the community came and sang of and worship Christ with us. There was no missionary work, no pamphlets or pushing, just the music.

The first year I conducted I was a little perplexed as to how to handle my feelings. I often felt overwhelmed by the Spirit as we worked and sang those incomparable oratorios. The second year I told them on the first rehearsal that I was a Christian, and that this music inspired me and made my faith in Christ bright and joyful, and I was sure that I couldn’t keep all of that joy from spilling out of my mouth – and if this offended anyone from the community, that they might want to consider singing with another group.

Nobody stood up and left. In the course of our rehearsal we sang the Hallelujah Chorus, and words came into my soul. It was a masterful practice. I was in tears as we sang the last note, as were many others. I opened my mouth and bore testimony far more powerful than I might feel comfortable in a Fast and Testimony meeting. It was a magnificent experience. Many people wept because the power of the Lord was in the room. I didn’t mention my religion, just my faith. Then, I apologized.

The choir president called on a closing prayer and people began moving slowly toward the door. A sister from the community came up to me. “Please don’t ever apologize for expressing your faith in Christ. The only reason I come to this particular performance is because I love the feeling of faith and joy that glows here.” Another person said essentially the same thing, then another and another. “We want to hear your testimony of Christ, it is what makes this experience a joy for us,” another brother said.

After that experience I took courage and often explained what each song meant and why it was an important part of Christ’s life. I bore my testimony before we sang, sometimes also after. It was the greatest experience I have had with music and with community friends.

One of the choruses is “Surely He Hath Born Our Griefs”. It begins with a rapid staccato accompaniment which Handel wrote to sound like the rhythm of a whip striking Christ’s flesh. When you realize this, the song is almost too painful to sing. “Surely, surely he hath born our griefs, and carried our sorrows. He was bruised for our transgressions. He was wounded for our iniquity. The chastisement of our sin was upon him,” sung to the rhythm of a whip. It is stunning, and awful, and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes and words of worship from my lips.

The magic of this is that I was speaking to over 100 non-LDS Christians in an LDS chapel, and WE were rejoicing together in Christ. There was no emotion of competition or comparison. For me it was a personal triumph of finding the courage to say what the Lord put into my heart to say.

I will never forget standing there on the conductor’s platform, a hundred-fifty performers looking at me, a thousand people waiting silently behind me, the Spirit of the Lord flooding through us all, raising that baton and feeling all that inspired music washing over me, praising as loudly as the human voice can sing, worshiping as powerfully as mortal tongues and hearts can, all to the rhythm of the little white stick in my hand. I have often heard angels singing with us, as if the chapel had expanded behind the chorus, and a hundred more voices had joined us. It was for me, a lifetime high.

For that brief time we had all became one, sons and daughters in Christ, and it still thrills me.

Brother John

About John Pontius

I am a lover of truth.
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One Response to Handel’s Messiah

  1. Cory says:

    My father-in-law has a tradition of buying tickets for every family member who wants to go to the Messiah sing along at Abravanel Hall in SLC every year. The first year he invited us I balked a little. I was fairly unfamiliar with the music, and am not the world’s greatest singer. After that first experience of the power, joy and feeling of that music, I have always looked forward to going.

    After moving to Florida to attend law school, my wife and I sought out a Messiah sing along we could attend. We found one at a Methodist church in town, and it has been a joy to attend that concert each year and sing our hearts out with many people of other Christian faiths. I just had to comment on this post as I love that music, and so enjoyed reading of Bro. John’s love of it as well, and his ability to bear pure testimony of Christ through its influence.

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