Blog

Who Tells Your Story

And the best wisdom I was ever given about doing a eulogy was to let a person’s life preach for them. Tell their stories. And God’s presence and work will be made plain…

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory: you have no control – who lives, who dies, who tells your story…

This year, my Lenten journey was profoundly impacted by one musical more than any other: Hamilton. I finally had the chance to see the play at the end of March and rarely has a show had such an important affect.

Yes, the story is remarkable. The historical account largely accurate. And the music – I’ve rarely had such fun at the theater.

But the piece that keeps circling around in my mind is the final song of the production, during which the events following Alexander Hamilton’s death are shared. In other words, who told his story. Though presidents and politicians were a key part of that tale, since his legacy has had such a large impact upon our nation, they were not the most profound witness.

It was his wife who truly told his story.

Eliza Hamilton lived another fifty years after he died (to the age of 97). She did ensure that his story was told through words and writings, but she did something even more important. She sought to make lives better because of what her husband had taught her. She spoke out against slavery. She ensured that his shining ideals were finding flesh in the new country. And most impressive, she founded an orphanage where hundreds of children grew up even within her lifetime. Hamilton was himself an orphan and she could see him in the eyes of every child who’s life she touched.

I’ve had to do two funerals in the past two weeks. And the best wisdom I was ever given about doing a eulogy was to let a person’s life preach for them. Tell their stories. And God’s presence and work will be made plain.

However, the part that is essential at the end of anyone’s life is not just that the story of how they lived is retold. No. It is that we continue to let their life influence ours. To let their light shine through us. To keep their witness going.

As Eliza says in the play, I stopped wasting time on tears. Instead, she lived. Lived fully and well.

As we approach Easter this weekend, my hope is that as we hear the story of Christ’s earthly end and resurrection, we will not only listen to remember the tale. I hope we will open our hearts and minds to the ways we can continue to bear witness to his and so many other stories that have impacted our lives. That is how we live out the legacies that have been passed to us. May we be so bold, brave, and willing to bear the work that still needs to be done.

So Different

Even as new life looms quietly upon the horizon, it is so important that we honor the reality for so many in this world who feel that there is no hope, no forgiveness, no love…

I dreamed a dream in times gone by, when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die. I dreamed that God would be forgiving… But the tigers come at night with their voices soft as thunder as they tear your hope apart, as they turn your dream to shame… I had a dream that life would be so different from this hell I’m living. So different now from what it seemed – now life has killed the dream I dreamed.

In the church, we are about to enter into Holy Week. Many churches and the secular culture love to focus on the pending arrival of the Easter Bunny and the empty tomb. Many would rather that we not focus on the messy bits that happen during the final days of Holy Week.

But life far more often reflects the messy bits.

This song comes from the French Revolutionary tale, Les Miserables. And it is sung by a young woman who has become destitute and turned to the oldest profession in order to care for her young child. It is heart-rending.

Her tale is far too common, even now in this world.

There are so many circumstances in this life that can tear our worlds apart and leave us weeping in the dust. And let us not forget that Jesus (God’s own self made flesh) felt alone upon the cross.

Even as new life looms quietly upon the horizon, it is so important that we honor the reality for so many in this world who feel that there is no hope, no forgiveness, no love. To sit in the muck and the mire. To never leave anyone alone.

Because we are a people who will rise like a phoenix from the ashes. And the new day will begin.

May all of us find ways to walk with one another through the long, dark nights of this life, so that we may greet the dawn together. Because tomorrow will come and life, and our dreams, will start again.

 

Just to Sit Still…

The choice is ours: sit still or actually do something…

There’s a dream in the future. There’s a struggle that we have yet to win. Use that pride in our hearts to lift us up to tomorrow, ’cause just to sit still would be a sin…

This Broadway musical by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is based upon the 1988 movie, Hairspray. It tells the story of Tracy Turnbladt, a plump teenager living in 1962 Baltimore. Like many musicals who have gone before and after it, this story deals with multiple sets of the prejudices in our culture.

It was remade into a movie in 2007, which is when I came into contact with it (as well as completely fell in love with James Marsden, but I digress…)

This song, I Know Where I’ve Been, comes at the point in the musical when the key TV show, the Corny Collins Show (seemingly similar to American Bandstand), cancels the single day it had set aside for people of color to participate. Having been so empowered to be herself (plump body and all) by her friends in Maybelle’s store, the main heroine, Tracy, suggests that they should march in protest. And this song is what is sung during their march, led by Maybelle herself.

It has references to many of the actual songs of the 1960s, as well as far older hymns like Lift Every Voice and Sing. It remembers all that has already occurred, but that there is light ahead and the end will one day be in sight.

There is a single line in this beautiful anthem that has always struck and stuck with me: just to sit still would be a sin.

With everything that is going wrong in our world – hate run rampant, sexual predators in positions of power, violence in places of worship and schools, entrenchment of political parties, prejudice in all its forms still dominating our culture – it is no wonder that we want focus mainly on self-preservation. But when we do, the divisions among us only grow deeper. We forget that there are people around us in danger, in need of a break, waiting for someone to empower them.

The choice is ours: sit still or actually do something every day, in big ways and small ways, that helps our fellow humans and makes this world a better place. (And for all of our Christian brethren reading this – don’t forget that Jesus chose the later. Every day. Intentionally.)

 

Carefully Taught

If we are honest, it is still a subject that we do not like to talk about…

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade… you’ve got to be taught to hate all the people your relatives hate.

I was raised on musicals. Classics from Irving Berlin to Rodgers & Hammerstein. So it should come as no surprise that South Pacific should make an appearance in this set.

Somehow, in spite of everything happening around him in the St. Louis at the time, my Grandpa managed to understand the deeper meaning of this song long before it existed. He passed that illumination on to my mother, who would sing it to me every time it became obvious that hatred was involved in something.

When this musical premiered in 1949, and then later when it was made into its film version in 1958, this song was extremely controversial. It brought up a subject we did not like to talk about – in the era just before the Civil Rights movement.

If we are honest, it is still a subject that we do not like to talk about.

Less than a decade ago, I had a mother suggest to me that there are times when hatred was the only way to explain to a child the difference between what is right and what is wrong. By then, we already had our first African-American president – which, contrary to popular belief, did not fix everything. This mother was not an exception. She is an example of the rule.

Hatred still runs rampant. Many believe it is necessary. They even tote biblical passages that will back up their position, because, yes, they do exist.

However, God has clearly proven throughout the millennia that hate is not the desired modus operandi of human kind (or God). It is instead a sign of the devastating hold sin has upon humanity. We pass the fear and hatred from generation to generation. For, make no mistake, we are not born with hatred in our hearts.

We have to be carefully taught.

It’s time we all grow back down again and unlearn those careful lessons of the generations before us.

Hatred is never acceptable. Ever.

Love does win, but only when we stop hate. When we stand against it. When we call it out for what it is. When we bind ourselves together, overcoming our fears. Because we are all human. We are all family. And it is time we start remembering that.

 

Bless My Homeland

… here is what is even harder: to admit that even a nation with the seemingly best of intentions has already been living with hate, fear, and oppression.

Edelweiss, Edelweiss every morning you greet me. Small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to meet me. Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow, bloom and grow forever. Edelweiss, Edelweiss: bless my homeland forever.

When considering one of the most beloved musicals of all time – The Sound of Music – this song is not necessarily the obvious choice. It is a gentle and simple melody, almost childlike in its clarity. Yet its lyrics and placement within the play make it plain that there is a much deeper meaning.

When this song is sung at the end of the musical, it is during the music competition in which the Von Trapp family is competing. They are about to make a run for the border. But first, the Captain shares this song with the crowd, who boisterously joins in.

It would appear that this song is meant to represent a national anthem. The Captain calls it “a love song” for his homeland: to all the very best it had been, was, and could be. All of these things that are in direct opposition to the work and dogma of the Third Reich, who was already taking over Austria at the time.

The Captain was commanded to return to the Navy as a part of the Nazi military – something he could not do in good conscience. But to stand against such power was likely a death sentence for he and his family. So they ran in order that they might stand with the opposing side.

It is an incredibly difficult thing to watch the country one loves descend into the grip of fear, persecution, hatred. To see atrocities committed with little to no answer. To listen to incitements of violence from leaders. To watch friends and neighbors fear for their lives simply for being who they are.

But here is what is even harder: to admit that even a nation with the seemingly best of intentions has already been living with hate, fear, and oppression literally built into our system. That the symptoms of evil have been in our midst from the very beginning. That there is a long road ahead to even begin to become all that we have hoped and dreamed.

The Nazis did not take power overnight. They came into a system that was already rife with discord, hostility, and abhorrence and took advantage. The majority of the people of Germany and the countries around it who gave in so easily were so afraid of confronting their inner demons, that they remained silent when blatant abuse became commonplace.

I grew up with a great love for all the very best that our own nation can be. I then learned that we have been our own worst enemies from the very beginning and created systems that let hate, enslavement, and fear run rampant. It was heartbreaking. It still is.

But, like Captain Von Trapp, I too have a great love for the land of my birth. I have hope in all that it can still become. And I pray, that you will join me in actively doing the difficult work in front of us. The labor that is necessary so that the dream will never die. So that it may become the reality. So that will finally see ourselves become the best version of who we can be.

 

Maybe We Forgot

Even those who do not agree with us or look like us or live like us – even they are not alone. Ever…

People make mistakes holding to their own, thinking they’re alone. Honor their mistakes, fight for their mistakes, everybody makes… Witches can be right, giants can be good. You decide what’s right, you decide what’s good. Just remember someone is on your side (our side), someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side maybe we forgot, they are not alone. No one is alone. Someone is on your side…

This song comes from the musical Into the Woods, which existed long before Disney created a movie version of it a few years ago. The story weaves together the tales of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as a lesser known tale about a baker. All of their narratives collide in the woods and chaos ensues.

This particular piece comes at the end of the play. The two youngest characters have lost their families but find themselves in the company of the baker and Cinderella. In an attempt to comfort them, they sing this reflection upon all that has happened and one essential thing we must never forget.

No one is alone.

Even those who do not agree with us or look like us or live like us – even they are not alone. Ever.

There is a unity to this song. It is that divine thread that binds together all of humanity. Sometimes it may take major devastation for us to realize it, but there is far more alike in all of us than there is different. We are all human. We want to build lives for our families. We seek shelter, food, and safety. We desire to see our children grow smart and strong. We all need love.

Wherever we may come from, whatever language we speak, whoever we may love – as Albus Dumbledore said, “Our hearts beat as one.”

Someone is on your side. You are not alone.

 

Home Again

Whether we admit it or not, all of us want to go home again…

For years and years I chased their cheers, the crazy speed of always needing more. But when I stop and see you here I remember who all this was for. And from now on, these eyes will not be blinded by the lights. From now on, what’s waited till tomorrow starts tonight. Let this promise in me start like an anthem in my heart…. from now on, home again.

Two Decembers ago, The Greatest Showman premiered in theaters. Though the history behind the tale is not nearly so beautiful (in fact, it is quite troubling), the movie paints a picture that is incredibly powerful.

Imagine building a community of all of the misfits and outcasts. Imagine that community finding its voice and bringing life to the people around it. Now imagine that you have a chance to join them.

Here’s the truth that this movie sparked within many of us: all of us are the misfits, at least in some way. Just about all of us have experienced some time when we have been cast out by another. And most of us are quirky, funny, different. Or as the main anthem from the movie suggests – we are brave, we are bruised. We are…

Imagine a place where we can actually be who we really are.

The song above is probably what can be considered the “secondary anthem” of the movie. It is the moment when the main character realizes how wrong he has been: motivated by ambition no matter how many people he had to trample upon to get to the top. He realizes that there has already been a community of people around him who loved him. A home that he helped to create. A home to which he now desires to return.

Whether we admit it or not, all of us want to go home again. Maybe not to the place where we were raised, but most certainly to a place where we belong. We need that community. We need that belonging. We need that acceptance.

My hope for all of us, as the season of Lent begins today, is that we will find our way back home – wherever that may be. Be it a family of faith. Be it a group of friends. Be it to our home town. May we all see the love that we need in our midst. May we be that love for one another. And maybe we will all finally get to where we belong from now on.

Scene from the Greatest Showman  (please forgive the subtitles)