Well-written obituaries offer a treasury of cultural observation and life wisdom. Take the New York Times obituary of Joni James, a best-selling singer in the 1950’s who died last month at the age of 91. James recorded over 700 songs in her career, sold more than 100 million records, and saw 24 of them go platinum and 12 gold. She was an early influence on Barbara Streisand, and the first American to record at Abbey Road Studios in London, where she made five albums.
But beyond these signal accomplishments and sales, the Times obituary offers insight into James’s life and art. She was known to her fans as the “Queen of Hearts” for her intimate vocal style. “I always sang from the heart,” she explained in a 1996 interview. “I always sang about life and how it affected me.” James left her music career behind in 1964 to care for an ailing husband. When she returned to the stage later in life, she described herself as a “bent-wing sparrow.”
The last line of her Times obituary is the most memorable. “Asked by The Daily News in 2000 why she sang so many sad songs, Ms. James had a simple answer: ‘Because I know what they mean.’”
OK, what in the world does this ‘bent-wing sparrow’ have to do with your church board and the leadership challenges facing you?
We know your plate is full: reconnecting with members, assessing financing, exploring the best use of your building if you have one, resetting ministry for children and youth, trying to manage in-person and online expectations, and many more.
Please don’t neglect the heart—both your own heart, and the heart of the people you are serving through your church board. Don’t get so focused on spread sheets and strategic plans that you fail to listen for the cries of the heart within your board, your congregation, and your wider community. We have all been bruised by the experiences of the last two years (or more). As Joni James reminds us, we can’t “sing” the songs of loss and grief unless we know what they mean. And we can’t know what they mean if we are not listening deeply to ourselves and others.
In this tender poem by Arab American poet Hayan Charara (b. 1972), a woman cries on the subway. Why do you think the poet remembers her ‘twenty years on?’
Self-Portrait With Woman On The Subway
by Hayan Charara
Across from me she
was crying badly, everyone
around her looking
into their laps trying
to pretend they did not notice.
in her grief she wept
like the N line
was a room in her apartment
and the afternoon
would last forever.
Twenty years on,
I could’ve said something,
“The red of your scarf
What songs are most meaningful to you in this season of Lent? Can you as a church board take time, at the start of your meeting, to reflect on this question, both for yourselves and your congregation?
Why is Charara’s poem titled “Self-Portrait with Woman on The Subway”?
If you were to create a self-portrait today, as a church board member, what would be in it?
How can you support one another to “lead from the heart” through Lent?