I am always sad to hear about a death, especially what seems to be an untimely one. The death of Princess Diana kept me riveted to the TV for days, as did the sudden passing of Dale Earnhardt. It seems like yesterday that I was priming tobacco for my neighbor when my buddy Jack walked up to the barn to say, “Did you hear that the king is dead?” I sat up late that night, listening to “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and sniffling over Elvis Presley’s death.
But I don’t know that any of them affected me the way Whitney Houston’s death has. Maybe it’s because she and I were about the same age. Perhaps it’s because when I was just entering young womanhood, she was also finding her way as a young woman–singing about the things we young women dreamed of–“Saving All My Love For You,” “All the Man I Need,” “The Greatest Love of All.”
And as she aged so gracefully in appearance, Whitney also got even better vocally–for a time. And still she sang songs that seemed to come from MY heart–“I Will Always Love You,” for one.
That same heart of mine ached when I began to hear rumors of her substance abuse problems. I grieved to see her extraordinary physical beauty begin to deteriorate–not because of the normal aging process but because of the effects of the drugs and alcohol. For some time, she was a bag of bones, and her face–though still lovely–grew haggard.
I always pull for the underdog, and so I was heartened to see Whitney seem to make a turnaround. She “fleshened up,” as Grandma would’ve described it. Her face took on a shade of its former glow. She went on a world tour again. She was preparing to film another movie.
Then one quiet evening at home, the shocking news that she was dead at 48 stunned me. I haunted YouTube for a while, listening to old Whitney tunes, finding new ones I had not heard. I watched old interviews with her.
I am grieved over any type of waste, but especially the waste of a promising life. Yes, I know she did more in 48 years than most of us would do in 90, but there was so much left in her. I had to battle some ugly thoughts toward her ex-husband Bobby Brown; she had seemed so pure and naive before hooking up with him. (Yes, I realize Whitney had free will and made her own choices to enter the dark and sinister world of drug use, but temptation often comes through appealing people.) I prayed not to hold any hard feelings toward Bobby and don’t.
But what fascinated me (and haunted me) most about Whitney’s life were her early years in the black Baptist and Pentecostal churches. (I say “black Baptist” to differentiate from “white Baptist” because the two church styles are very different.) I wondered if she later missed being such an integral part of these powerful churches. I know that she still sang some gospel songs, especially when she made the movie “The Preacher’s Wife.” But recording some gospel songs to random mass choir backup is quite different from actually being a vital part of a personal church music program.
I watched an interview that Whitney did with Diane Sawyer in 2002. The poignancy of it was heart-wrenching. Diane asked her what her perfect life would be in 10 years. Whitney detailed her dreams of being retired in 2012, watching her daughter grow into a productive woman of God, living a good life, having grandchildren.
She could not have known way back then that that would be the very year of her death.
Diane asked her which of the drugs was her biggest demon. Whitney looked at her contemplatively and replied with raw candor, “That would be me.” She clarified that the drugs weren’t the demons–that SHE was her own demon in this situation since she made the choices. Diane persisted in this line of questioning, wanting to know specifically what people who wanted to help be the barrier between Whitney and drugs could pray for. Diane probably thought that Whitney would name a particular drug or other temptation.
Whitney looked at Diane as though they were on two different planets. With great passion, she declared that she didn’t want people to pray about the drugs. Instead she wanted them to pray for her soul, that she would be able to be stronger and make good decisions.
At the end of the interview segment that I watched, Whitney’s fervor increased as she pointed to the sky and avowed that no matter what anyone said or believed, she knew that she was a child of God and that He loved her. Then she quoted the words of the old song, “Jesus loves me; this I know.” And she smiled sweetly and trustingly.
And when that same Whitney–10 years older and more worn, her once exquisite voice hoarse and ragged–sang the last song of her career onstage at a pre-Grammy party the night before her death, it was “Jesus Loves Me.”
Less than 24 hours later, she was dead.
I’ve already heard the debate: Did she go to Heaven or not? My daughter Meghann’s response to that was, “I am not God, and therefore, I do not dare presume to judge.” What a wise girl God has blessed me with!
If your doctrine tells you that we can lose our salvation based on our works and that we’d better not die while swerving off the narrow road or we’re sho nuff out of luck (and grace), then you may think there’s no way she made it to the pearly gates. If you ascribe to the “once saved, always saved” doctrine which believes that we are truly sealed to the day of redemption and that it is not of works that we are saved lest any man should boast, then you assume she made it on home.
I don’t have a soapbox in this debate. I trust in my all-wise and all-knowing God to make the right decision, and I wouldn’t DARE speak a word against the dead in this case. We don’t know what her last thoughts were. Even if she was in a state of intoxication, who knows that she wasn’t crying out to God to forgive her, to deliver her, to help her? I wasn’t in the hotel room. I don’t know.
I only know that I am still haunted by the old video of the pencil-thin little girl with cropped hair–looking somewhat like a young boy–singing in the choir at her New Jersey church. I ache at the memory of the exquisitely lovely 38-year-old woman whose eyes lit up with excitement as she told Diane Sawyer how the “Holy Ghost fire,” as she called it, would be on the people’s faces when she would sing in church and that’s when she knew that God had truly given her an infectious gift.
And I will remember her best perhaps as she sang a song called “I Love the Lord”–her beautiful voice ringing out to tell the world that “He heard my cry, and pitied every groan. Long as I live, while troubles rise, I’ll hasten to. . .His throne.”
THAT’S the God I blog about. THAT’S the God I long for. THAT’S the God I serve. The God who hears our heart’s cry and pities every groan. I believe that’s exactly how He felt about Whitney.