Last week I dropped by the First Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City to hear tenor Mitchell Sturges sing. The setting was just right. The late sun through the stained glass gave the chapel the feel of a tropical rain forest. The silence was warm and inviting.

Sturges sang religious songs from Handel and Beethoven, among others. And though I lack the training to talk of timbre, tone placement and such, I found his singing to be "transparently clean." It was as if the singer disappeared, leaving only the song behind.

In religious music, such talent is a virtue.

The singer must get out of the way and let the music speak; the impressions left by music are usually the deepest impressions on the heart.

I have a thought about religious music and such impressions that I share whenever someone will listen.

I think types of religious music are like bodies of water.

The great oratorios, for instance — "The Messiah," "Elijah," "The Creation" — are like the great crashing waves of the sea. They wash over you, knock you off balance with their power and cleanse you.

The hymns are serene mountain lakes. They offer a shining surface filled with light, while underneath they reach depths that few can fathom.

Children's hymns are sparkling brooks — like the little stream that gives and gives. They may be playful and fun, but the water they hold is the same water found in the lakes, rivers and the seas. The spirit — the "living water" — is just as potent in a brook as in the Sea of Galilee.

In fact, one of my favorite children's songs was written by two grand masters. The music is by Josef Haydn, who wrote the thundering choruses of "The Creation." The words are by the legendary storyteller Robert Louis Stevenson, who gave the world "Treasure Island" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

You'd think such a collaboration would produce a song that would rock the celestial spheres and summon lightning from the skies. But the song that bears their names is sweet and simple — the children's song, "Thanks to the Father."

Thanks to the Father, we will bring.

For he gives us everything.

And when that song is sung from the heart of a child, it can be just as moving as the solos from the loftiest oratorio.

Listening to Mitchell Sturges sing "Comfort Ye, My People" from "The Messiah" with such clarity and honesty, I knew if he sang "Thanks to the Father" I would feel just as moved. The "living water" of religious songs is always alive, always fresh and invigorating — whether it "lives" in an ocean or in a teacup.

Poet William Stafford once said spiritual matters don't need to be big, they just have to be right.

Handel, Beethoven and "Thanks to the Father" are right.

My thanks to tenor Mitchell Sturges for showing us just how right — and real — they all are.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com