For me, just hearing the name Louis Armstrong is like pressing the ‘play’ button on one of my very favorite songs ever– What a Wonderful World.
“…I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself, What a wonderful world…”
Just hearing– even if only in my mind– Armstrong’s deep, raspy voice savoring these beautiful lyrics stirs me with every happy, contented moment that’s stashed away in my treasure-box of life’s greatest memories.
And that’s why I was completely baffled, and very, very impacted upon learning a little bit about Armstrong’s story recently. Like many up and coming musicians of his day–including Ella Fitzgerald– Louis Armstrong was also born in poverty. But unlike many of the rest of them, his was abject. He was born to a prostitute in the lowest, poorest red-light district of New Orleans. Often left to fend for themselves while their mother continued to practice her trade out of desperation to survive in dire times, he and his little sister were frequently left on the streets to fend for themselves.
At the tender age of seven, he found some work with a kind Russian immigrant family who often let him sleep at their house because there was nowhere else for him to go. It was this Russian family– the Karnofskys– that first recognized musical talent in Louis and got him his first instrument, with which he played music on street corners to earn a few coins for survival.
When he was a mere twelve years old, he was arrested by police for shooting blanks into the air to celebrate on New Year’s Eve, and was sent to a juvenile detention home for young black boys called the Colored Waifs Home for Boys. But ironically, Louis loved it there. It became his “home,” and they became his “family.” There was a band at the home that Louis became part of, and his musical talent soared.
My interest in Armstrong’s background was sparked in a recent sermon by Pastor Robert Rayburn (Senior Pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma,) who related that for years after in his adult professional life, Louis Armstrong made it a habit to return to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys whenever he was in New Orleans. During these times, he always went into his old room, found his old bed, climbed under the covers and had a nap. It was the one place he felt safe and comfortable.
All this, from the man who became renown for his song, What a Wonderful World.
The story was painful for me to hear, as it might be for you. Currently, I have a seven-year-old grandson, and thinking of any boy at that age having to fend for himself completely wrecks my heart. I am saddened that as a seven year old boy, Armstrong never knew– as my own 7-year-old grandson Jakob and every single one of our grandchildren knows– what it’s like to run into the arms of loving grandparents for a bear-hug every time he walks through their door, to know he is loved and is a deep part of something so much bigger than himself.
Yet just like Armstrong climbing into his old bed as an adult, every person on this planet has a driving need at some point in life to find that place of safety and comfort– that “bed” where he knows he is secure. At some inevitable point in life, discouragement, fear, or frustration over difficulties will drive every living soul to that place of seeking out safety and comfort. Like it or not, life is made up of trials and adversities, and there are so many things– in fact, most things in life– that are uncertain.
Like constantly shifting clouds always changing their shapes, nothing remains the same for long. We cannot know what’s ahead, or how circumstances in our lives will change, because everything changes. In the middle of shifting sands and clouds blown by the wind, the human heart constantly seeks that illusive place of refuge and security– yet all too often we look for in all the wrong places. All around us, the pressure is intense to find refuge in TV or the Internet… in divorce… in controlling others… in giving in to uncontrolled anger, finger-pointing, criticism, gossip, blame… in entertaining a victim (or martyr’s) mentality… in an obsession over outward beauty… in holding tenaciously to unforgiveness… and on and on and on…
Even Armstrong’s life– as optimistic as he seemed– suggests that he never felt satisfied that he had found the place he sang so eloquently about. Married four times, he was always looking for something that he still struggled to find.
But security will never be found in life’s circumstances. The character of life itself is too unpredictable– certainly not a good place to lock in something you can be sure of. Ultimately, there is only one place where a refuge and true security can be found– it’s through confessing our desperate need for the only One who can forgive us, live His life in us, and give us His secure promise of eternal life. Jesus Christ is the only constant, our only security, our peace, our refuge. He never changes. Christ Himself is the fixed Rock that sustains us through all of life’s changes, and assures us of peace and joy forever in life eternal with Him.
I’m truly glad that my grandkids know what it’s like to be welcomed with big hugs when they walk through my door. But as much as I wish I could always give them that deep sense of security, I can’t. Inevitably, I will let them down somewhere along the way. Only God Himself can do what I can’t. But what I can do is keep on pointing them to the only and sure place of peace and true security– because He’s there to be had.
As Pastor Rayburn said, “There is a huge difference between those who live in this world knowing that they are safe and secure, and those who do not.”
My foundation is safe and secure. It sustains me through every change and adjustment this life throws my way and gives me the assurance of where I am going in the next. Therefore, I really do love hearing this song–
“…I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more Than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself, What a wonderful world…”
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