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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Watching Susan Boyle

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 11, 2009


            (To view the video go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxPZh4AnWyk)

            I feel bad for the girl at 1:24. Do you know the one I mean? The one who rolls her eyes and grimaces after Susan says her dream is to be professional singer. (Actually, I think she’s “the girl at 46 seconds” in the slightly edited version we saw this morning.) But as far as posterity—and the internet-- will remember her, she will always be “the girl at 1:24”.

 

            She’s had a rather rough time of it, I’m afraid. Type “girl at 1:24” into Google, and you get 84,300 hits, for that exact phrase. That doesn’t even count the number you’d get for phrases with a somewhat less complimentary noun preceding “1:24”. 84,300 hits—and none of them complimentary, none of them saying what a nice young girl she was, how cute, how pretty.

 

            No: people hate her.

 

The Daily Record in the U.K. quotes some posts from a pro-Susan Boyle website. One reads: "Talk about never judging a book by its cover. By the way, anybody else feel like punching the chick at 1:24 in the face?"

 

Another calls on Susan's fans to set up a hate club. "Not enough has been said over her: the girl at 1:24,” yet another fan writes.  “Can we not find her and name and shame her, please? She leaves a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.”

 

And another mocks ominously: "Yeah, we saw you eye-rolling girl at 1:24."

 

Finally, things got so bad that Ms. Boyle herself had to intervene. “Leave the poor girl alone,” she told her fans.  “She had the same reaction as the judges and everyone else in the theatre, she does not deserve this treatment.”

 

So, let’s hope that the poor girl’s minute and 24 seconds of infamy are finally over.

 

Because it’s easy to get fooled by appearances. Isn’t it? It happens all the time—and not just to snotty teenage twits from Glasgow. (I might have just done it right there: How do we know that the “girl at 1:24” isn’t an honor student who reads to blind children in her spare time? We don’t.)

 

But even really smart people get fooled by appearances sometimes. Even you or I might, sometimes. It happened way back in ancient times, too, to the prophet Samuel, the ancient Judge, who was supposed to be just about the brightest guy in all of Israel—at least according to the Old Testament book that bears his own name.

 

During this period, Israel has decided it wants a king, and Samuel first anoints Saul—who has proven to be an unmitigated disaster. Israel is at war with everyone. The economy is a disaster. Society is divided and is going to hell in a handbasket, and nothing seems to be going right anymore. (You can draw whatever modern parallels you might like at this point, depending on which side of the current political divide you stand on.)

 

So, Samuel is depressed. He feels responsible to making Saul king. He worries; he frets about Saul. What is he going to do? But Yahweh appears to him one night, in a dream, and tells him: “Get over Saul, Samuel. Just go choose another king. Better yet,” God continues, “I’ll tell you where to look: go to Bethlehem, and find the family of Jesse. From among his sons, I have provided you with a king.”

 

“Well, that should be easy,” Samuel thinks. “I’ll just go and interview Jesse’s sons, and I’ll know—I’ll just know—when the right one is before me.”

 

First, he meets Eliab, the eldest. Something of a hunk, I guess. With a good appearance. Strong and strapping. Samuel is impressed. He thinks to himself. “This must be the one!” “Surely, the Lord’s anointed is now before me.” (that’s the way the “official version” reads.)

 

But then, Yahweh himself pipes in, in Samuel’s ear:

 

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

 

So, Son #1—Eliab the Hunk, flunks the interview. So does Son # 2, Abinadab. And #3, Shammah… all the way down to Son # 7. Jesse is running out of sons, and Samuel is starting to get worried again:

 

“Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, ‘The Lord has not chosen any of these.’ Samuel [then] said to Jesse, ‘Are all of your sons here?’”

 

Of course, there was one more—the youngest, David. A simple shepherd. The runt of the litter. They had not even bothered to bring him up from the fields, because he always seemed lost in his own little world. Playing on the harp. Writing his poems. Singing his songs. Not nearly as manly or rugged as the others. He could never be a king!

 

Bring him here,” Samuel commands. And when the Lord sees David, he announces to Samuel, “Rise up  and anoint him; for this is the one.”

 

So David is anointed king over Israel—and a mighty king he will be.

 

“For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

Or as David (perhaps) later writes in one of his Psalms: “The stone which the builder rejected has now become the chief cornerstone.”

 

So, back to Susan Boyle, and the lessons of this modern morality tale:

 

When she first stepped before that audience in Glasgow on that day back in January, or when she first appeared on the screens of tellys across Britain in March, or on the Youtube screens of something like a hundred million of us a week or so later, we probably rejected her, too, at first glance. We probably gawked at her matronly, somewhat disheveled appearance, her awkwardness, her lack of glamour.

 

Maybe we even rolled our eyes. Just like the girl at 1:24, I know I did. (I roll my eyes a lot. I think doctors will someday discover that I have grooves carved into the frontal lobe of my skull, just behind my eyes, from rolling them so much). We knew what to expect from this frumpy, “old” woman (and in the juvenile world of popular culture—especially in the unreal world of “reality” television-- 47 is considered “old”—and maybe it is old for someone to be launching a career, I suppose): She was going to bomb; Simon Scowell was going to tear her to shreds; and we were all going to be allowed to revel in her failure, for that is what so much of popular culture seems to be about these days: tearing other people down, so that we can fee that, at least, we’re not as bad as they are. “Ha!” we may have thought. “This’ll be good!”

 

Then, Susan Boyle began to sing. And it was good. And she was good. She sounded like an angel (especially in comparison to what we were expecting). Wonderful pitch. So clear. With such power in her phrasing and presentation.

 

Then we watched her again. And again. Forty-eight million Youtube hits in one week. (Compared to President Bush dodging the shoe, which got “only” 32 million the first week it was out; and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, which got 33 million; and the victory speech of President-elect Obama at Grant Park in Chicago, a truly historical moment in American history which scored a [relatively] “paltry” 19 million hits.)

 

There was something so inspiring in Susan Boyle’s triumph. And we who had just rejected her, soon took her as our new cornerstone.

 

For a while at least. But then, things changed again.

 

On a dime (or perhaps, in this case, we should say, “on a tuppence”)—in about as much time as it takes to utter that big word “but”—the tide of public opinion against Ms. Boyle turned again.

 

It was all a put on, the more cynical sneered. It was fixed, a hoax, just so much fancy film editing.

 

She was not just a simple church volunteer from West Lothian outside of Edinburgh, some exclaimed. She was a trained singer, the conspiracy theorists exulted. She had had two months of vocal training (about 20 years ago). She had sung at weddings. She had even made a recording for charity (which sold a princely 1000 copies).

 

The pressure started to show. She was overheard arguing with a porter inside a hotel. She blew up when a promised new dress wasn’t delivered on time. She stormed out of a hotel lounge when a commentator on the television over the bar dared to express the opinion that she might actually lose the Britain’s Got Talent competition in the end.

 

Headlines like “Susan Boyle’s Dream Turns Into A Nightmare” began appearing in the press. She became the stuff of tabloids. She was cracking under the pressure, some said. She was a victim of fame, a pawn of the entertainment industry, others sad. One commentator wrote:

 

the ugly meat-grinder that is the entertainment industry has chewed its way through this beautiful soul. She is no longer Susan Boyle to them, just a commodity to sell. They will sell her concerts, sell her voice, sell her likeness, sell her story, and probably even sell Susan Boyle bobble-head dolls in time for Christmas.”

 

Such doom and gloom only seemed to be confirmed when, in June of this year,  Susan Boyle actually did lose the Britain’s Got Talent final to an energetic (and wonderfully talented) dance troupe called Diversity (check them out if you get a chance, they’re amazing).

 

As the victors were announced, Susan tried to keep up the old British stiff upper lip, but she looked crushed, even physically ill.

 

And she was ill; nervous exhaustion had taken its toll; she had a breakdown; she checked into a mental health facility. Her future looked grim, and it seemed as though the nay-sayers were right—again. There was to be no storybook ending to the tale of Susan Boyle; there would be no handsome prince to break the spell.

 

But, as the Buddha tells us, life is seven times down and eight times up. It’s all about endings—and the new beginnings that grow out of them. Life is a roller coaster, even at its best, and that is a big part of the reason that is so amazing and so precious to us. Or, to change the metaphor, there are patches of many different colors (light and dark, side by side, together) in the crazy quilts which are our lives.

 

Susan Boyle is back. She never stopped singing. She toured Britain with the other Britain’s Got Talent finalists, and, as far as her mental health went, there were good days and there were bad days-- but couldn’t most of us say the same? She came to America a few weeks back, and appeared on America’s Got Talent, where she was greeted enthusiastically, and gave a haunting rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses”. Her new album won’t be released until November 24th—but it is already ranked #3 in music on Amazon.com.

 

So much for doom and gloom and the end of her career.

 

Of course, we don’t know where her career will take her, and what the rest of her life will be like. But they say she’ll end up earning about three million pounds this year—that’s almost 5 million dollars ($ 4,784,000, at today’s conversion rate). Not bad for a 47-year old spinster from West Lothian, outside of Edinburgh.

 

However long and glorious her career may be, I pray that Susan Boyle will have a bit of happiness and comfort and security for he remainder of her days. She’s earned it as much as any of us.

 

For she is a tough gal, this Susan Boyle is. Simon was right, I think, deep down inside, she is a little tiger. She is also as much of a role model to us for the 46 rather unremarkable years she lived before she went on Britain’s Got Talent as for the year she has spent since in the glare of celebrity. She was deprived of oxygen at birth, they say, and so had a learning disability throughout her life. She was called “Suzy Simple” by her neighbors, and taunted by the kids at school. She gave up all hopes of a career, maybe even of romance, to care for her ailing and elderly father and mother, who both passed away eventually She lived alone with her cat, Pebbles, and stayed at home most days, playing the piano, and singing songs that no one would hear. She volunteered in the church office. She sang at variety shows and gatherings around town. She had a simple life and enjoyed the simplest of pleasures.

 

But she kept on singing, whether or not anyone could hear. Because she knew she had a gift—a gift from God, which the ways of the world could neither give nor take away. She knew her own inherent worth and dignity. And she knew that, if she had the chance, she could share that with the world.

 

“I dreamed a dream in time gone by,” she sang, when she got her chance.

 

When hope was high and life, worth living.
I dreamed that love would never die,
I dreamed that God would be forgiving…

 

Why did this simple woman touch us so deeply? Why did she make us smile, or even weep? Because she reminded us of our own dreams, I think, our own hidden talents. Another commentator puts it this way:

 

“Maybe it’s because Susan Boyle reminded us just where to find the key to unlock those dreams and dare to bring them to fruition. Because of Boyle, this week baby boomers will search through their files for that novel they were working on just before Woodstock; decades of dust will bee blown off guitars stored away in the attic; Jay Leno wannabes will be reworking their killer five minutes for the next week’s Comedy Works open stage. And ERs about the country will be treating plenty of sprained ankles and sore arthritic bodies as aging Mickey Mantles who had long before willed their softball bats to their grandchildren, once again will swing for the fences. The angel’s voice dressed up in the frumpy dress and home-cut hair awoke in each of us the dreams we had locked in ‘ain’t never gonna happen’ drawer.”

 

There is no magic wand making our dreams come true.

 

But there is the tenacity of the human spirit. And there is the audacity of hope. And there is—always and forever—the wonder and surprise that lies at the heart of this precious life, and the magnificence of a holy spirit which always seeks to astound our worldly wisdom with the luminous glow of that still more excellent way.

 

There is no magic wand, and there are no easy answers. But there are our spirits, casting the glow of their dreams, even in the darkness of an uncertain night.

 

 


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