John Bennison Words and Ways | Spit It Out

Spit It Out


Spit It Out: What you say, and How you say it

A Reflection for Twelfth Night

 

Then Herod secretly called in the Magi astrologers and learned from them the exact time of the star’s appearance, and he sent them to Beit Lehem, saying, “Go and inquire precisely about the child.  When you find him, bring me word so that I too may worship him.”
   After hearing the king they set out, and look, the star, which they had seen in the east, went before them until it stood above the place where the child lay.  When they saw the star, they were marvelously glad.  And they went into the house and saw the child with Miryam his mother, and fell to the ground and worshiped him.  Opening their treasure boxes, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. 
   Then having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned by another road to their own country.  [Mattityahu 2:7-12]
From Willis Barnstone’s translation,
The Restored New Testament (2009)

 

 Dateline: January 6, 2011

By now (since the video went viral a whole two days ago), most everyone has seen and heard all about Ted Williams, the down-and-out homeless prodigal from Columbus, Ohio, who’s been dubbed “the man with the golden voice,” and this week’s media sensation.

On Monday, a mildly amused local reporter rolled down his car window to challenge the panhandler holding the ragged cardboard sign, which read, “”I have a God-given gift of a voice.”  The rest is history.

The deep resonant tone of a professional broadcasters voice spit out a quick one-line announcement with such ease and emphasis that one easily would have thought the sound booming from the car radio had been transplanted into the throat of the lanky, disheveled drifter with the ready smile and crooked teeth.

Except for his instant fame, his personal story seemed all too familiar: drugs and alcohol, a broken marriage and numerous offspring, the unknown whereabouts of his family, a former budding career now a distant memory, and a decade later just another nowhere man with nothing left to lose because he’d lost it all.  Well, almost everything, with the exception of his rich voice that somehow remained intact, and something else less apparent, but perhaps of greater importance

On this morning’s broadcast of The Today Show, the nervous knee-jerk behavior of a recovering addict attempting to assimilate his meteoric rise to instant stardom was clearly evident. Aside from the series of scripted questions, the interviewer observed Ted’s humble demeanor and his polite deference, so common among street persons when required to bow and grovel for spare change.

Williams responded by recalling how his mother always taught him to treat others as he himself would like to be treated, with dignity and respect.  In that moment, he took on the role of self-appointed spokesperson for the countless millions of those often dismissed and despised, whose personal stories one can never presume to know.

All the well-known catch phrases sprang to mind.  “Don’t judge a book …” “There, but for fortune, or by the Grace of God …”  That kind of thing.  But there was even more to be found in this little human-interest story, and the message.

This former-nobody who was scarcely a shell of his former self was sitting on a comfortable couch alongside these famous co-anchors in NBC’s Studio 1A, in Rockefeller Plaza.  And, seated there upon just such a throne of deference, delivering his speech with such eloquent elocution to a mass audience, I realized how much greater was the gift of his regal message, than merely the voice which delivered it.

… seated there upon just such a throne of deference, delivering his speech with such eloquent elocution to a mass audience, I realized how much greater was the gift of his regal message, than merely the voice which delivered it.

In The King’s Speech, the little gem of a movie currently making the rounds, King George VI has just the opposite dilemma as Ted Williams.  The British historical drama tells the story of an earthly king who is afflicted with a stutter that all but incapacitates him in the execution of his obligatory duties.

Upon his father’s death and his older brother, Edward VIII’s abdication in order to marry his heart’s desire and a despised woman judged to be utterly unacceptable by social convention, Bertie – as only his royal family is allowed to call him – is thrust upon the throne.  It’s 1939, and Britain is on the brink of war with Nazi Germany. His loyal subjects around the globe are waiting with bated breath to hear much-needed words of inspiration and encouragement from their new king.

None of the king’s men, including properly knighted doctors, professional speech therapists or even the smug and insufferable Anglican clergy leadership, are of any use.  In desperation, the tongue-tied monarch seeks out Lionel Logue, a very unconventional Australian speech therapist of modest means with no formal credentials; except the real-life experience of having helped soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the last Great War learn to emotionally walk again.  Though worlds apart, it is the king who must come begging at the door of one who lives in a part of town where no royals would normally stoop to venture.

The king’s initial haughty resistance gradually gives way, as he is brought low by his affliction and utter neediness; only to be lifted up by the simple, wise and compassionate commoner, who not only helps his king rally the people for a great shared ordeal to be endured and overcome; but creates a lasting life-long friendship between king and pauper.  In this little tale, the greater message to be conveyed transcends even the paramount message of the king’s speech to his subjects, delivered with loosened tongue.

In this little tale, the greater message to be conveyed transcends even the paramount message of the king’s speech to his subjects, delivered with loosened tongue.

 

Today is Twelfth Night, marking the end of Christmastide with the observance of The Epiphany in the Christian faith tradition.  Followers mark the occasion by retelling the gospel tale of intrigue between a jealous and fearful King Herod, and the alien “magi” who seek the one before whom they should genuflect in praise and adoration.

As told, the Epiphany story has traditionally been meant to convey the story of the Jewish mashiah’s manifestation (epi-phanos, “light all around”) to (and for) all the peoples of the earth, kings and paupers alike.

But more so, I’ve always liked to think of Matthew’s little story as a belated Christmas gift exchange.  As some of us reminisce the way we sang the old hymn, those “three kings of Orient are, who travel so far” bend the knee before the manger and offer the newborn Light of the World extravagant and utterly useless gifts.

And in exchange, they presumably receive a simple message in the form of a dream, which “enlightens” them that there is another, better way to return to their former lives in a much richer and abundant way.   It’s the message, not the means, which is the richer gift.

And in exchange, they presumably receive a simple message in the form of a dream, which “enlightens” them that there is another … much richer and abundant way.   It’s the message, not the means, which is the richer gift.

 

Since it was first coined nearly a half century ago by the early prophet of the electronic age, Marshall McLuhan, we live in a time in which purportedly “the Medium is the Message.”  The result has been an exponential explosion of all the means with which to say whatever one has to say; even when one has nothing worthwhile to say.  The result?  So much would-be development of content and character has been usurped by special effects and banal drivel.  Paddling against such mainstream convention, I would contend how you say it isn’t nearly as important as what you say.

Accustomed as I should be to public speaking by now, I’m one who has been known to mumble and stumble with my words.  Consequently, my preference is to chew on them and use the written word as my medium of choice.  And, while I know enough to ask neither the kings of this world, nor princes of the Church, where the light of the world is to be found, that “other way home” remains the gift to be sought and shared above all other allegiances.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say is a wise maxim.  Remaining true to one’s word is a mark of integrity that is a priceless gift even spiritual vagabonds can afford.  So, to Ted and Bertie, you and I, it would seem the message is the same.  Ultimately it’s not the voice, but the one behind the voice that is the gift.

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to Words & Ways.

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for a truly inspirational meditation on the meaning of Epiphany. You have shone a little Light into my life.

  2. Your descriptions of Ted, both of appearance and demeanor, make me remember what Cecil Williams repeatedly says with reference to the “street people” in the Tenderloin. On any given Sunday one or more of them can be found among those attending services at Glide. We can never know their stories, but we know that each of them is someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother. We certainly cannot be sure that if/when Jesus comes amongst us, he may well appear as a “disheveled drifter” come to bring us the gift of his message. – Cindy

  3. That “other way home” is, as you write, the “gift” for those who see things as they really are and desire something–dare I say anything?–better. The ruts in Washington have grown deep. The Church is bound by tradition. Freedom comes at the cost of striking out in a new direction without a mythical star to guide, only desire. Fred

  4. + John /

    J.B.: Stupendous commentary, brother. Keep it up. You’re an Epiphany light in the darkness. +John

  5. Katherine /

    The frenzy over Ted Williams has nearly brought him back to face his demons and I am sure he was not prepared to get what he prayed for; Would anyone be ready to face what we say in prayer and know how it would be received? I have made most of my biggest mistakes by speaking (out loud) what I mean but others hear how the message was said. Listeners hear the tone and level before they digest the meaning even when (the message) is correct. I am left to wonder how Jesus hears me and reassured that what I meant is heard, not how it is said in prayer. John, your message is a gift being the voice (or written word). Thank you. – Katherine

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