In preparation for Easter, this week’s All In podcast is an interview with my dear friend, Latter-day Saint composer and arranger Rob Gardner, whose sacred music oratorio Lamb of God is performed by choirs and orchestras throughout the world each year. Rob sat down with me to discuss what he learned by studying and writing music about the last week of the Savior’s mortal ministry through the eyes of those who walked with Him—those who loved Him personally. In the episode, Rob shares what he felt as he attempted to write a song about Peter’s feeling after the denial and explains what he recently felt about the Savior’s question to Mary at the tomb, “Woman, why weepest thou?” Rob also talks about choosing the right song for the apostle Thomas and why he believes Thomas didn’t really doubt.
This topic is especially close to my heart, as a few years ago, another friend of mine gave a sacrament meeting talk about the apostle Thomas. In the talk she said, “We call him ‘Doubting Thomas’ but Christ never called him that. Not once.” I’ve thought about that statement again and again. I love that Rob’s composition gives us the opportunity to examine these people—the people Christ loved—in a new way, to remove the stigmas we have placed on them over the past 2,000 years and imagine how they really must have felt as they watched their Friend on the road to Calvary. I hope you’ll listen to the whole episode by clicking here,because I think Rob offers many great insights, but if you are short on time, you will find one of my favorite parts of the episode transcribed below.
Morgan Jones: I love that with Thomas you have the song “Sometime We’ll Understand.” Can you tell us a little more about the process [of writing that song], because that song I feel like takes us from the New Testament and what happened there to today and kind of connects the two over hundreds of years. What was your thought process with that one?
Rob Gardner: So that was the second hardest moment, because I knew I wanted to end with this thought coming from Thomas. And “Sometime We’ll Understand,” the lyrics are not written by me. It’s a hymn that was in, like, three hymnbooks ago. And my mom, I believe, was the one who pointed it out to me and just said, “You gotta [listen].” But the problem was with many of the hymns written 100 years ago, the music felt like 1910, so it didn’t feel accessible today.
So I had found that I had an aunt who died of breast cancer, I think it was in 2004 I want to say, so it was several years before I wrote this. And I remember finishing [arranging] that song when that happened, because I was struggling to understand why that would happen to such a beautiful, young person with nine kids of her own, and so that song was already there. I had already written it, but I didn’t have anywhere to put it, so I never recorded it. I never released it because I like to put songs in a work and not just do individual songs. So, when I was writing Lamb of God, I knew that lyric was exactly what I wanted to say, but I didn’t feel like stylistically that song fit into the world of Lamb of God. And I kept wrestling with this, but every time I would come back to it. It was exactly what I wanted to say, because I try to be very careful when I’m writing sacred music to never preach to my audience because I don’t like to be preached to. I don’t like to be told, “This is what you should do.” And so I didn’t want Thomas to have any answers yet. In the context of the story, it (Christ visiting His apostles while Thomas was gone) had just happened, so for Thomas to have gone through this thing of questioning—and we could go into what was really going on for him, but I’ll just say this much: He didn’t question that Christ had been resurrected. That would be stupid. Every one of his friends and closest trusted people told him they’d seen Him the night before, so he believed it. He was hurt, and that’s how he reacted—to say, “I won’t believe until I see.” And we all do that every single day.
MJ: I feel like it’s like the most hurtful form of FOMO [Fear of Missing Out] is what he was experiencing.
RG: Yes! Like Christ knew he wasn’t going to be there, so why would He come in the few minutes [Thomas wasn’t there]? I have this theory that he was there already and, like, Peter sent him to go run an errand, so he was actually doing exactly what he should’ve [been doing]. I don’t think he was late. I think he was where he should’ve been, and for some reason, Christ decided to come while he was gone. And it’s like you said, how badly would that hurt? It felt personal, I think, and how many times have we done that where, it’s like, something happened, and we look to heaven and say, “That’s not fair. Why would you have left me out of this?” or “Why did you cure this person of cancer but you didn’t cure my mom?” Or whatever it is. And that’s where Thomas was for me. He didn’t really doubt that Christ was risen. I think that that would be strange. So “Sometime We’ll Understand” doesn’t have any answers. It simply shrugs your shoulders and says, “Sometime we’ll understand.” But I love that the chorus is just saying, “But trust in God through all thy days. Fear not.” To sing and praise when we’re still in trouble—while we’re doubting we can still sing and praise and just hope that someday it will be revealed to us.
And I remember I was just fighting against putting this song in there because I didn’t feel like it worked in the world. And I remember one day in my tiny little house in L.A., deadlines were looming, and I just was really having a rough time with that and just life in general. And I started playing that song, and it moved me so profoundly and I thought, “There’s no way I can’t put this in there, because if it moves me this profoundly in a moment where I need it, it’s going to touch other people. So who cares if it works? I can fix the orchestration, I can make it fit.” And I have zero regrets about doing that because it still, to me, like you said, is a good way to finish it up. Sometimes I think we can feel belittled in our trials when someone says, “It’s all going to be okay.” I remember one of my aunts, the sister of the aunt who died, saying to me about another song that treats it similarly saying, “Thank you for not diminishing the struggle of the trial while also saying, ’But it’s going to be okay.’” And that was really high praise for me, because I think it can be difficult sometimes to [not] make it feel like we should just shrug off our difficulties rather than to feel like we can sit in them for a while but still sing and praise while we’re hurting. We can be in joy and sorrow simultaneously, and I don’t think people want to always believe that.
Listen to the episode here.