The Common Good

In Memory of Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston performs onstage during the 2011 Pre-Grammy Gala. Photo by Getty
Whitney Houston performs onstage during the 2011 Pre-Grammy Gala. Photo by Getty Images.

The Bible teaches us: “A good name is better than precious ointment and the day of death, than the day of birth.” (Ecclesiastes 7:1)

On this day, as the world morns the unexpected passing of legendary singer Whitney Houston, this wisdom reminds us that when we grieve death, we grieve our own loss.

Ms. Houston has passed from time into eternity, from this veil of tears to a place where there is no more pain and no more tears, where the only relevant judgment is the judgment of God Almighty.

As a girl, Ms. Houston sang in church, and in her last public performance she sang, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” In the time and space between, she lived a life of wealth and fame, of joy and pain. 

The Bible also teaches us: “Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.” (Proverbs 14:13) Her magnificent voice thrilled us. The crumbs falling from the decadent aspects of her life fed our need to gossip, our voyeuristic appetite to witness the downfall of those we burden with unrealistic expectations, our greediness for more and more of them until they barely have anything of value for themselves. And now that she is gone, we mourn and we remember.

I saw Ms. Houston in concert before she was a star. A friend of mine gave me a ticket to see Jeffrey Osborne at the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, Penn. Ms. Houston was the opening act. She rocked the house. Then there was an unforgettable moment. 

No matter how powerful and distinctive a human voice is, it is still a human instrument. There is fragility in the power, vulnerability in the strength, weakness in the magnificence. There was a moment when this fragility showed. She stopped, threw her head back as if looking into the heavens — the source of her gift — and with eyes closed she waited.

Ms. Houston held the audience not through the power of her voice, but through the power of her presence. She waited and we waited with her. We waited in anticipation.

We waited as opera audiences wait to hear whether the soprano will hit the high note. We waited as audiences wait to see whether the tight rope walker, walking at the highest heights without a net, will make it to the other side. 

In that moment, we had no way of knowing that this young singer, who had the confidence and the grace to wait, would go on to sing hit after hit, that she would inspire a generation of young people with her anthem “The Greatest Love of All”, that she would take a country song “I Will Always Love You” and stretch it across all kinds of barriers, that she would sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at a Super Bowl and give chills to the entire world. 

We did not know how difficult her life would be, how she would battle back from drug addiction and a marriage that enabled it. We did not know she would die too soon.

When she was ready, Ms. Houston did a deep knee bend and took a note from the center of the earth and pulled it up through the floor of the stage, through the core of her being and released it into the cosmos, and we, her audience, went crazy. 

For a brief, much too brief, moment all our fears and pain and disappointments, all that we attended the concert to escape, left us with that one note.

I knew that I had witnessed the explosion of a supernova.  

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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