Whitney Houston is gone. But I remember when she was alive in my family’s kitchen.
As a boy, I was awestruck by the power of a Sony radio. My parents kept it high on a shelf, up next to all those red and yellow cookbooks and the potted green ivy.
Once I reached a certain age, I was allowed to touch the radio. My fingers stroked its walnut wood casing. I experimented with those clockwise and counterclockwise movements, exploring a world that went far beyond my small Indiana college town.
There, in the kitchen while helping my mom with the dishes, I heard a voice hit a frequency of celebration that only a soul lost and then found could reach.
Surrounded by the toil of clean and dirty dishes, I fell in love with The Voice.
But that was then. When good and evil stayed in separate sinks.
Last night, though, things got messier.
We’re hosting a party of friends at our home. We’re all laughing and listening to music. But now, instead of a kitchen radio, my wife’s cell phone brings the news of Whitney’s death.
I watch the light from the tea candles flicker once, back and forth, flash over our guests’ faces. Brief silence leaves a lump in our throats.
We’ve already heard or can imagine how the news will all be packaged by entertainment networks and late night monologues, then dumped into a sloppy, microwaveable pop culture casserole.
“Is this real or a joke?” someone asks.
A lot of awkward silence and people changing the subject.
A longer reflection tells me, though, that Whitney Houston reached for something real, something beyond her addictions in the same way that Hamlet reached for something beyond his indecisions.
Torturous circumstances and poor choices leave ugly scars. Even rewire brain chemistry. They make life tragic and leave us desperate.
Desperate for the voice of a lover.
News reports tell us that Whitney showed up at a club the night before she died and did an impromptu performance of “Jesus Loves Me” with R&B star and friend, Kelly Price. Just two nights before the Grammy Awards.
But it was never about the Grammy’s. Or even about the party. She’s been singing about this lover of her soul for a very long time.
It was about Jesus. How He loves and how He saves. Whitney grew up with gospel roots and knew what her life was meant for. But the world and its darkness beat her up and sent her spiraling downward, again and again.
Before my wife and I met, each of us had been praying for Whitney Houston, from time to time, as she rose and fell. We felt called. And we know others who have felt the same call.
I believe Whitney Houston battled against her demons while struggling to hold onto truth, but the shelf finally broke and the kitchen radio dropped and died in a sink full of dirty dishwater.
Today I found a YouTube clip from her movie “The Preacher’s Wife”.
She stands before the church and wears a choir robe. Her voice is beautiful again.
“I love the Lord,” she proclaims with the angelic sweetness of a child. “He heard my cry.”
He heard my cry?
I believe God did hear her cry. But she still died. I don’t know how to deal with those contradictions. They’re jagged. And they hurt. She was supposed to die free.
Before I find the answer, I hear the church choir rise and join her solo. They begin to sing the same words of that hymn, now together, and somehow all those voices carry her, contradictions and all.
Tonight I’m so desperate to join that choir.
And we still have dirty dishes left unwashed, from last night’s party.