Paul Villard titled his story: Information, Please
“When I was quite young, we had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember well the polished, old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother would talk to it.
“Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person — her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know. “Information Please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.
“My first personal experience with this genie-in-the-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give me sympathy.
“I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the foot stool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear. “Information Please,” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head.
“A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear “Information” “I hurt my finger…”
“I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience. “Isn’t your mother home?” came the question. “Nobody’s home but me,” I blubbered. “Are you bleeding?” the voice asked. “No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.” “Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.
“After that, I called “Information Please” for everything. I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me my pet chipmunk, that I had caught in the park just the day before, would eat fruit and nuts. Then, there was the time Peaty, our pet canary died. I called “Information Please” and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual things grown ups say to soothe a child. But I was un-consoled. I asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?” She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in “. Somehow I felt better.
“Another day I was on the telephone. “Information Please.” “Information,” said the now familiar voice. “How do you spell fix?” I asked.
“All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. When I was nine years old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. ‘Information Please’ belonged in that old wooden box back home and I somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall. As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity, I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated now how patient, understanding, and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.
“A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle I had about half-an-hour or so between planes. I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then, without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information, please.” Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well. “Information.”
“I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell fix?” There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.” I laughed, “So it’s really still you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time.” “I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls.” I told her how often I had thought of her over the years and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister. “Please do,” she said. “Just ask for Sally.”
“Three months later I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered, “Information.” I asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?” she said. “Yes, a very old friend,” I answered. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally had been working part time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.” Before I could hang up she said, “Wait a minute. Is your name Paul?” “Yes.” “Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you.” The note said, “Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.” I thanked her and hung up.
“I knew what Sally meant.
“Never underestimate the influence you may have on others.”
The first time I read this story I was really ‘taken by surprise.’ I was surprised that it ‘got to me.’ Do you know what I mean? I was surprised that it worked.
Even though it was shmaltzy, that it was over-the-top sentimentality – the kind of sentimentality that makes sad things sometimes sound silly – it touched something in me, so I wanted to get in touch with that something, and doing a sermon on it is the best way for me to find out what I think.
So I announced the sermon topic, the story, wondering where it would take me. Then one morning while walking along Compo Beach, it came to me – I realized, for example, that Information Please is a variation on the 23rd Psalm!
Listen again the perfect poetry of Psalm 23:
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Notice what happens half-way through that Psalm: at first the Psalmist talks about God – he makes me lie down in green pastures…he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul. Theologically, we all begin by talking about God, speculating, and sometimes arguing with one another about who or what God is, or whether God is, or whether it’s just a made-up imaginary friend.
Then there’s the transformational moment in the Psalm, the ‘valley-of-the-shadow-of-death’ passage and a significant shift takes place – the Psalmist stops talking about God and begins to talk directly to God, as one talks to another person, as one talks to an actual person on the phone: ‘thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me, thou anointest my head with oil.’
The confrontation with mortality, with the valley of the shadow of death, deepens the spiritual life – we look for some kind of direct experience from which to draw strength, so we stop arguing about God, we stop trying to tell someone what they should think about God, and we just try to find a way to connect – like Paul did when he talked to the God-like voice, Information Please. It helped him when he was hurting, it calmed him down when he was worried.
Paul Tillich called it ‘the ground of being,’ the God beyond God.
Paul Villard has that kind of experience with Sally; he says that she ‘was there’ for him – she comforted him, she reassured him – she told him to get a piece of ice: thou leadeth me to the ice box and anointest my hands with ice.
Information Please provided an audience, or an ear, at least, which helped him to cry, to express his hurt.
Sally, ‘Information Please,’ was omniscient, she knew the answer to all of his childhood questions that he was struggling with – questions about math and geography, questions about how to care for a chipmunk (they eat fruit and nuts, and the big question when his pet canary died, the big question: why?!
He asked, “How do you spell fix?”
How do spell out things to fix the brokenness in my life; how do I fix a broken heart…how do I fix myself when I get caught in the grips of sadness or shame? How do you spell fix?
Information, Please has the elements of a good myth: an interesting setting, with that old telephone, struggles – to find solutions to problems – and a good ending.
The voice on the phone is like the voice of God that came to Moses out of the burning bush – just a voice, like Information Please – a voice telling him what he needed to do next with his life, how he could give his life a sense of meaning and purpose and direction: “Go back to Egypt,” the disembodied voice said, ‘for I have heard the cry of my people…they need you.’
When Moses expressed doubt about his ability to do what God tells him he must do, the voice assures him…like Sally saying ‘it will be okay, I’ll be there for you, I care about you.’ Or like the ‘still small voice within’ that we need to dial up from time to time, digging down deep, getting beneath the surface where the questions are floating and come up with some new understandings to direct us.
The all-knowing or omniscient voice on the other end of the phone is God-like, the God we’d like to get on the phone, live, rather than a recorded message, like the stale, out-dated ones that might have worked in the past but aren’t working for us anymore…the fresh, here-and-now voice of Information Please!
He dug down deep into that place when his canary died, and Sally said, reassuringly, ‘there are other worlds to sing in.’ She ‘anointed his head with healing oil.’
We all need that kind of reassurance from time to time. (As George Odell said,) We need to be comforted when we’re in trouble and afraid, and from time to time we need to be recalled to our better selves again, or when we’re in despair or temptation and when we look for someone to share a success or in the hour of defeat when we need some encouragement.
Paul never met Sally face to face…”to love another person is to see the face of God” Le Miserables…Biblical I John: “No one has ever seen God…who loves knows God…”
Each of us spends time doing what Sally did…which is mostly listening…making the connection. The operator used to say, “One minute, please, and I’ll connect you.”
That’s what religion is really about – it’s about feeling connected…when you hit your finger with a hammer and there’s no one with whom to cry…or when you need to spell fix!
Allow me to remind you of the way Henri Nouwen said it:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
Paul Villard captured it in his simple, sentimental story, Information, Please.
What’s your story?