Billie Holiday and the Prodigal Son

Welcome to my blog. I am excited to use this space to share some of what is important to me, what I am learning, and what I have experienced. Most of the writing here will be around the topics of faith, politics, and leadership in the 21st century, but you will also find quite a bit on music and other topics. I hope that this will be a place where we can learn about each other, draw closer to Jesus, and maybe find some of the direction and courage we need to follow Him.  I hope you enjoy this first post--I would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Thanks for reading. -Michael

                My love of jazz was conceived in one of those experiences a teacher gives a student and never has the gratification of fully understanding its impact. I was in the sixth grade, and my music class was in the midst of a tour of musical history that took us from the Gregorian monks through the Baroque era to Mozart and Beethoven, and on to Puccini and Sousa. One day, finally, we made it to jazz. 

                The moment my teacher, Ms. Timm, turned on the CD player, and Billie Holiday’s breaking voice expressed its first sorrow, I knew I had found something special for me. I now think of it as my first grasp at transcendence. Back then I only knew it as this feeling that made my heart rise, and my mind retreat to some new place. I have returned there often.

***

                 Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son is one of those parables that meets you in a deep place the first time you hear it. No pastor’s interpretation is needed for the parable to mean something to us, even today.

                We know it well.  The youngest son of a wealthy man asks for his inheritance early. The father grants his son’s wish, and soon after the son gathers his belongings and sets off for a distant land with the bravado of someone with many possessions and little perspective.

                So often when a speaker gets to this part, they will concentrate on the fact that the Son “squandered” his inheritance through what the NIV translates to “wild living.” Yet, this sometimes causes us to miss an important point: the son’s problems begin and end at the moment he left his father. If he had left his home to launch a brilliant business venture, or give away all of his inheritance to the poor, he would still be lost. The moment he left his father, it did not matter where he was headed: he was on the wrong track. He belonged with his father.

                After some time, the son found himself in a difficult spot: broke, taken advantage of, starved. He found himself envious of pigs. And so, either out of desperation or revelation (it really is irrelevant), he returned. Here is how Jesus described it:

When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

        While he was still a long way off, his father had been looking out for him. Through wild living and complete desperation, his father had anticipated his return.  

***

                Billie Holiday is at her best at the intersection of love and longing. One of my favorite things about her is that she can take a song like “Easy to Love” or “If You Were Mine,” and give them a depth and complexity that most of her swinging, carefree contemporaries never approached. This is why the song “I Cover the Waterfront” was perfect for her.

                “I Cover the Waterfront” was written in 1933, inspired by Max Miller’s 1932 book and featured in the 1933 classic movie of the same name. The song was a smash hit, and it was recorded by many of the big bands and singers of the day.      

                It fell out of circulation in the late 1930s, but entered a second wave of popularity in 1941 as the world braced for its war. It should be no surprise that the song gained new meaning in the midst of wartime.  

              The song’s refrain reads:

I cover the waterfront
I'm watching the sea
Will the one I love
Soon come back to me

                Billie would go on to record the song in 1941, and featured the song in several additional recordings, including a 1945 recording with Duke Ellington’s orchestra near the close of the World War. Across Europe and the United States, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, spouses who hoped their loved one would make it back and those who knew they would not—people listened to this song and felt something deep. Something personal.  

                Listen:

***  

          Several years ago, as I listened to this song--Billie’s longing voice, her hesitant hope, her desperation—I was struck by this notion: God is covering the waterfront for us.

          Even before we turned to Him, long before we landed on His shores, He has longed for us to come to Him.

          He calls to us:  Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

          In my faith walk, and perhaps for yours as well, I have made the mistake of leaving the safety of the shore to explore the ocean, only to find that the tide had carried me much further than I had anticipated.

          Have you ever strayed so far from God that you’re not sure you can ever make your way back? Have you worried that you’re so deep into the ocean God has forgotten about you? Do you feel that way now?

          Sometimes, when I feel this way, I will listen to this song and remind myself:

          He covers the waterfront.

          He’s watching the horizon for me.

          He wants me to return. He’s waiting for me to come back.

          To my God. The Lover of my soul.

How does it make you feel to know God is covering the waterfront for you? Are there popular songs that remind you of God’s character? How has God reminded you that He is relentlessly pursuing you? That He is the Lover of your soul?