A warning up top. I’m going to indulge some obscure, trivial, warm memories that I’ve had for 50 years before I get to my point.
My first radio deejay job was at a small “Top 40” station in my hometown. The format meant we only played the top forty best-selling tunes (as determined by sales of 45-RPM singles across the country and reported in Billboard magazine). Live deejays played them randomly one after another off two studio turntables, 24 hours a day. At about 3 minutes a pop, with time for commercials in between, each record got played about every three to four hours, with the top ten of the week being played a bit more often.
The record companies sent dozens of new demo records each week. These were tossed, unexamined, into a big box on the floor by the program director’s desk. The PD of this small station consulted the Billboard chart each week and then looked through the pile of demos to find our copy once new songs showed up on the chart. And every few weeks he would toss out the demos that seemed to have no future as hits.
That’s where I began my collection of lost and overlooked treasures. These often included singers with big hits in the past who were no longer competing as successfully as the Beatles and other British rockers who were overwhelming young record buyers in the ’60’s.
One of those discarded singles that I salvaged was by Johnny Mathis. (Melanie loved him.) He had been huge in the late ’50’s. His album of greatest hits was still listed among the current top 100 albums each week for ten years after it was released. His albums all sold steadily. Overall, only Sinatra and Elvis sold more records than Johnny. After fading from hit charts in the ’60’s, he would have a modest airplay comeback with duets he recorded in the ’70’s with younger pop singers. The obscure single I am remembering would have been one of the last ones he released in his original romantic ballad style.
The single was a song from a new Broadway musical, a platform that was also finding it harder to produce hits like it had in the hey day of Irving Berlin and Rogers and Hammerstein. The musical had a book by Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys, The Goodbye Girl) and music and lyrics by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (who had written a string of Top-40 hits for Dione Warwick and others). Promises, Promises was based on the Oscar-winning Billy Wilder movie The Apartment. It opened in the winter of 1968 and ran three years, winning several Broadway awards.
In the story, a girl falls in love with a married guy who thinks nothing of cheating with every girl he can catch. When he walks out on this girl, she expresses her mixed up broken heart in the song, “Whoever You Are, I Love You.”
This song was on the “B” side of the Johnny Mathis single I found on the radio station scrap heap. It was intended only to take up space, not actually be played. I listened to it. I have considered it his finest work ever since, although it had no chance against the Rolling Stones lighting up the rest of the radio world. It was never released on an album until it showed up 46 years later in a grab bag box set CD collection of Johnny’s other singles. I am disappointed to report that the track on the CD was not in stereo, only the mono mix originally thrown away on the old 45 that came out and disappeared in 1969. (You can listen to it here.)
When I recently rediscovered Johnny’s recording online, it triggered a spiritual reflection and reinterpretation in me. The opening line that Hal David wrote is typical for the kinds of work he and Burt had been successful with. That is to say, it didn’t sound fuzzy and romantic at all. It was practically clinical:
Sometimes your eyes look blue to me
Although I know they’re really green
The short lyric goes on to outline changes and betrayals of trust that the girl has seen. But she feels stuck. Her heart is broken, but still given to her cold lover.
But however you are
Deep down, whatever you are
Whoever you are, I love you
The second time Johnny sings that refrain, his voice drops nearly to a whisper on the final words, almost as if he cannot believe what his heart is feeling.
Now I was hearing that song again years after losing my copy of the old 45. This time the song was putting words to my frequently confused feelings toward Jesus. The song was never written with any spiritual overtone or intent. I was listening with different ears.
I do not, can not, understand Jesus much of the time. But I cannot turn from him. I was reflecting on this privately, thinking it was much too personal and unhelpful to admit publicly.
Then, as Melanie and I sat down to breakfast, I picked up the devotional The Journey to read the day’s entry. It was one I had written. Last year. It was about the disciples who went with Jesus to the mountain where they saw him transfigured.
When Peter saw Jesus and Moses and Elijah all lit up in glory, he scrambled for an interpretation of what he was seeing. In doing so he assumed that what he could see told him all he needed to know. The three men looked equally glorious. So they must be equally glorious. Peter didn’t ask for help in understanding the sight before him. That was a mistake.
God Himself quickly entered the situation to provide the correction and instruction Peter and the others needed to avoid spreading the mistake.
I point out two facts. First, Jesus didn’t try to defend himself from the confused conclusion Peter was reaching. Jesus left the defense of his honor and position in his Father’s hands. Second, although the whole thing started with what was made visible to the disciples, when Father God entered the scene to clear things up He remained invisible to their eyes. The correction and instruction came by words they heard spoken aloud. It was by listening, and by listening specifically to Jesus, not primarily by seeing him, that they avoided going wrong.
In the song I’ve discussed, the point of view assumes that the singer is seeing and understanding correctly the behavior of the lover. When we are watching God at work in our lives, we cannot make that assumption. Jesus will always be true to his word, but we are prone to misunderstand and misinterpret him if we are first trusting our eyes and our natural brains ability to sort out what we see.
We must reach the same conclusion as the song. Regardless of what we think we have seen or think that we know — regardless of however, or whatever, or whoever this Immanuel, this God-With-Us is — we can, we must, in the end, say “I love you.”
Not because of how we feel. But because we should. Because we must. It is the great command. Obedience to that command is the one gift we have to give.