I was sad yesterday to hear about the death of John Ylvisaker; if we know him at all, most of us know him as the writer of "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry." It's a beautiful song that tells us of the ways that God takes an interest in us throughout our lives, from the most mundane events to the most important.
It's that rare song, one that most of us are capable of singing, but without dumbing down the music. It's not the unsophisticated structure that we find in much praise music that's also designed for singing by most voices.
Likewise, the lyrics are sophisticated, but not inaccessible. Look at that first line: God doesn't say, "I was there when you were born." Hearing the baby cry upon birth is a much more lyrical way of expressing the same idea.
Ylvisaker wrote many songs that are treasured, but none with the reach of "Borning Cry." But he was also a medical doctor, a professor, and a real estate developer (according to this obituary).
It's a reminder that's important to me about how broad the expanse of one's life can be. We putter along assuming we're accomplishing nothing only to look up one day and realize that we've taught thousands of students, written more words than we can count, and done the daily clean up along the way that life requires.
I've had this idea on the brain more so this week, even before the death of Ylvisaker. My spouse was grading essays from his Philosophy class, and one of his students quoted one of my spouse's mentors. My spouse then had an interesting Facebook conversation with a wide-ranging group of our college friends, many of whom had taken classes from that mentor. It was wonderful to hear how this group of folks who majored in a variety of topics, but who remembered the mentor as one of their best teachers--and they remember him decades after taking the one class.
Our old Philosophy teacher might be surprised to hear how many of us still remember him, even though we majored in something different. Or maybe he designed his life and teaching in the hopes that we would.
Likewise, with an artist like Ylvisaker, I'll always wonder if the work that the wide public cherishes is the work that the artist thinks is best. When I look at any anthology, that thought comes to mind.
In the end, I go back to the wisdom that elders across the spectrum have taught us: we do our work, whether it be our creative work, our work with the upcoming generations, our work for pay, and even the drudgery work that most of us must do, and we do it to the best of our abilities because we can't know for sure which part is most important.
And that work that outlives us might happen much, much later in life than we're expecting. We live in a world where we're more impressed with youth--we are bombarded with messages that tell us that if we haven't done our best work by the time we're 21, we might as well give up. But if we look at Ylvisaker's life, we see an alternate narrative--he was over 60 years old when he wrote the work that most of us know, the work that will be sung at baptisms and weddings for many decades, and possibly centuries, to come.
Our culture also tells us that staying power proves the value of work. But that, too, is a lie. I like the spiritual aspect, the being present, the sacramental element--the meeting God in our daily work. I like the idea that we are not required to transform the world in a single day of work. For most of us, we have many years and decades to do that transformative work--and we have partners along the way.