Habitat or Humanity by Michelle Jones

When I think of home...

Two weeks in Kyrgyzstan was going to be Heaven or Hell on earth.  I had to decide which.

The Kyrgyz people were visibly shocked at the sight of African American me.  They gawked, gasped, and pointed me out to their children.  Some of them stared until I passed and then laughed.  Long story short, I got more attention than the statue of Lenin being removed from the square at the center of the capital city (I know, I was there).

Whenever there are differences—between people, places, or things—it is the nature of humans to be distracted by them.  Inwardly we draw distinctions and make decisions based on whatever conclusions we’ve drawn.

The pretty people and their rich friends are given a pass.  Old white women clutch their purses as they walk past young men of color.  Students make fun of the new kid.  Married women are suspicious of the divorcee in their midst.  The articulate are listened to before the less literate.

In Kyrgyzstan, the dark woman with the round eyes was a distraction.  I don’t know if I was deemed better or worse, but clearly I was worthy of more notice than others.

I was certain they meant me no harm, but I can’t say I didn’t feel injured.

My discomfort had little to do with feelings of inferiority or rejection.  I was feeling what many people feel in schools, on jobs, at churches, in marriages and families—among “good people” every day.  I was feeling HOMELESS.

The people of Kyrgyzstan taught me something I could not have learned without some pain.  We have to be deliberate about creating a “home” for the people who encounter us.

Metaphorically, home is a place of welcome and belonging. It is designed to reflect care, decorated with a smile, warmth, or an understanding heart.  Its windows—our eyes—are made for seeing people, not just looking at them.

When we decide to make a person feel at home with us, we do more than just greet them or take note of them.  We notice them.  We are interested in what brought them to us, and concern ourselves with what will keep them safe and happy while they are with us.

Home is different from “housing.”  Anyone who is or has been in a loveless marriage will tell you that.  We build housing for people when we allow them to occupy our space without allowing them to make it their space too.

It is easy to think we have done right by people because we haven’t raised a hand against them or didn’t slander them to their face.  But is it enough that we have done no harm when we have done no good in its stead?  Can we call ourselves innocent because we didn’t inflict the pain we see in someone’s eyes if we close our own eyes to it?  Isn’t it easier to be hated by someone you’ve never met than be ignored by someone next to you?

If we only see a person for a moment, that moment should be infused with meaning.  Consider the world that God created before He created us.  There is water for drinking and sun for light and energy.  Plants give us what we need to breathe and eat.  Without words, we know that earth is our home.  Before we were created, we were welcome here.

What kind of home have you made ready for the people around you?  Is there a place for the hurting and the happy, the worker and the wounded, the curious, the committed and the confused?  Can Miss Fit and misfit alike find acceptance with you?

A few days before I left Kyrgyzstan, I attended services at a small Christian church.  As they sang worship songs, people were turning around to stare.  Before his sermon, the pastor asked if there was anyone in our group of visitors who wanted to say something.

I went to the front, not sure what to say, but knowing I should say something.  When I looked into their faces, I had an unexpected revelation.  They were looking at someone different from them…and so was I.

“These have been the two most uncomfortable weeks of my life,” I said, and I told them about being stared at and how it made me feel.  They listened without judgment, without defensiveness.  As the translator spoke for me, I saw a few heads nod and smiles make faces a little wider.

Then I opened myself up fully and invited them into my fragile, messy home.  They treated it like their own.  There was tenderness in the weathered faces.  I had had their attention for weeks, and now they finally had mine.

Kyrgyzstan is more than 99% Muslim.  It struck me suddenly that a Christian in that land is as uncommon as a dark woman with round eyes.  I talked about how it should be as difficult to walk away from Christ as it would be for me to come out of my skin.

“You are my brother,” I found myself saying to the man directly in front of me.  “And you’re my sister…”

I went on pointing out person after person in my newly discovered family.  The smiles were toothy grins now, and I heard “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” like popcorn all over the tiny room.  I was home.  We were home.

The moment took my breath away and these beautiful people changed me forever.

Earth is most like Hell when we are kept from and keep others from belonging.  It is most like Heaven when we make ourselves, and others, at home.

O Come Ye Unfaithful by Michelle Jones

What sticks with us most growing up is not the memory of what is given to us, but what is lost or taken away.  I suspect it is because we are born without disappointment, ready to receive, certain that our sucking mouths will be filled, and that our outstretched hands should have and hold every object of our desire.

Baby Love is this:  I ask.  You give.  I am satisfied.

Demands for simple things—food, a dry diaper, safety—are usually met and keep us in this posture of entitlement…until someone offends us.

Offense—any infliction of pain or withholding of pleasure—is our first signal that the world and its people have the power to rob us of control, stall our drive, and make us doubt the wisdom of expectancy.  The first time a parent ignores our cries and leaves us in the crib to sleep through the night, we are outraged, and that feeling doesn’t leave us easily.

If we are honest, somewhere deep inside us is the belief that trusting people entitles us to their faithfulness.  It’s an infantile notion—the stuff of tantrums—that remains in us because we don’t know how to challenge it and win.  We don’t know how to declare the world unfaithful and still have hope while we’re in the world.  This puts us in one of two postures:  perpetually disappointed or perpetually hopeless.

How do we discover and experience love among imperfect people in an unsafe world?

First we grow up.

Love is a very high cliff over a very deep ocean.  Only fools “fall” in Love.  The wise count the cost of it, know the worth of it, then willingly make the sometimes arduous climb and JUMP into it.

Love is not blind.  It sees the world as it truly is—in all its ugly and clumsy incompleteness—then reaches for it, drawn not by potential reward but need.  Adults know that caring is no guarantee that you’ll be cared for, and people who offer love with demands for loyalty usually cannot be trusted to deliver or appreciate either one.

Second, we become skilled at the art of forgiveness.

Pretending nothing happened is not the idea here.  If my brother’s aught against me is not real, pardon is unnecessary.  Forgiveness is not forgetting to remember, but rather remembering to forget.  It is choosing, with each thought of vengeance, to let your offender off the hook because there is a measure of grace burning a hole in your pocket.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe we have grace enough to spare.  But consider this:  How weak and deflated is the spirit of a bully?  How much evil does it take to shrivel the heart and create an abuser?  How long does the mind have to steep in ignorance and bile to produce a racist?  Grace doesn’t know the answer to these questions, and it takes pity on those who do.

Finally, we experience love in an imperfect world when we stop trusting people to be anything other than people, and start trusting Love.

The only thing people have the power to do perfectly is repent.  Don’t expect him to behave.  Expect Love to behave.  Don’t look for her to guard your heart.  Love will do it.  Relationships don’t heal us.  Love heals us and relationships.

Love does not keep us free from pain.  Bullies and abusers will always be with us on earth.  But Love will keep us free in pain.  Oppressors walk naked and unhidden before us when our pity exposes them as the only victim left in the room.

What sticks with us most when we live a life of Love is not the memory of what is lost or taken away, but the good we are fortunate enough to leave behind.

Love is this:  You need.  I give. We are satisfied.

The Eyes Have It by Michelle Jones

Sometimes life interrupts life, without warning or apology, and our expectations take a bit of a hit. We adjust and we survive.  Then there are those times when our own decisions—no matter how right or well intended—shatter our insides and cause huge chunks of tomorrow to suddenly disappear.  There is no adjusting then, only falling, into the pile of ashes that used to be our dreams.

This is the rest stop on the way to Beautiful.

My appointment with Dr. Christine Lee was still consuming my thoughts as I watched Adam and Grace exchange their wedding vows.  Sitting alone amongst the other guests, pieces of Now flitted by me like parade confetti, barely noticed, unclaimed, and then gone forever.  It’s hard to pay attention and die at the same time.

“I think you’ve made the wise decision,” Dr. Lee had told me.  “We’ll take out your uterus but leave the ovaries.”  She was sympathetic and knowledgeable, the kind of doctor you want when you’re finding out that what you’ve always counted on can never be.

I will never have children.

I had done the right thing.  There was no question in me about that.  It was a responsible and courageous decision, the return on an investment of focused study, prayer, and good counsel.

I will never give birth to a daughter or son.

Adam and Grace, newly Mr. and Mrs., breezed past my pew.  They appeared blissful and confident, a couple looking forward to everything awaiting them.  I was glad for them, and for a moment, I seized a piece of their joy and made it my own.

Later, at the reception, my friend Terri spotted me and waved me over to her table.  I didn’t see her husband Kent and presumed he was off somewhere kiddie wrangling two of their three children.  Terri was holding onto their youngest, a pretty doll-baby named Taylor.  I approached them kicking myself inside.  What was I thinking?  A happy mommy bouncing a happy infant on her knee was the last thing I needed.

“Hey, girl, and hey pretty girl.”  Instinctively I reached out to touch the baby.  I was not ready when she responded by reaching up for me with both arms.

I hesitated for just a second, and then I took Taylor from her mother, scared to look at her, scared to like her, scared that one smile from her would bring Never crashing down on me for the hundredth time in the past 24 hours.  I was so scared that the tears filling up my eyes would fall and never stop. Terri’s other two children walked up and she was temporarily occupied, confident Taylor was all right with me.  I wasn’t so sure I was all right with her.

That fragile emotional landscape where we are both undone and unseeing is a terrifying stretch to navigate.  We are raw, weak, and vulnerable; walking wounds wearing fake smile bandages.  Here, safe places are scarce, because well meaning words can cut as deeply as thoughtless ones, and pity is more often salt than salve to the heart exposed.

Taylor was fidgety so I stood up and swayed with her in my arms.  I sang and spoke softly into her ear as we slow danced.  It relaxed us both and we settled into each other like old friends.

I will never hold one of my own like this.

It was a huge fist punching a hole through the floor of my heart and my despair was suddenly bottomless. The only thing holding me together was sorrow and the tiny person breathing on my cheek.  I held onto my friend a little tighter.  She laid her head on my shoulder and I inhaled her sweet baby smell like my life depended on it.

I’m not sure when or why, but I stopped singing and began to share my pain with her.  She didn’t understand a word I was saying, but she didn’t seem to mind the transition.  She didn’t complain when a few of my tears fell into her fine curly hair.  Then, something quite remarkable happened.  Some of my sadness began to leave me.

I noticed it right away.  Taylor must have noticed it too because she lifted her head from my shoulder and tried to look directly into my wet eyes.  I shifted her a bit so we could face each other properly.

She stared more than looked, right through me it seemed.  I didn’t hide anything from her.  If she had cried, it would have destroyed me.  I was that breakable.  She didn’t cry.  She just stared.  So I stared back.

Her eyes were round and clear, so clear that I saw myself in them, like I was looking into two little mirrors.  It wasn’t normal.  I could actually see my facial expression.  I smiled, and I could see my teeth.

We are never left with only one way to see anything.  Rain is bad for a hairdo, but good for the earth.  Losing everything also means you have nothing to lose, so go for it, whatever “it” is.  Fear can paralyze you or present an opportunity to be courageous.  The depth of misery is also proof of our capacity for love.

Seeing myself in Taylor’s eyes taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life.  Because I do not have any children, all children have me.  I am free to belong to every one that I encounter.  For a moment, an hour, or a season, I am theirs.  My attention is theirs.  My smile is theirs.  My joy is theirs.

Oh, and before you ask Well Meaning and Piteous, I have not ruled out adoption, and I am open to marrying a man with children.  But those are issues for tomorrow.  Today, I have no children.  Today, there is nothing where my womb used to be.  Today, I cried as I wrote this.

But…

TODAY IS BEAUTIFUL.  Today, my body is empty, but my heart is full.  Today, I am available and accessible.  Today and every day, I am grateful for YOUR children.  Can you say the same?  Today, I am free to love.

Me, Myself & You by Michelle Jones

The flight was full and short staffed.  I barely made it to the gate before boarding.  First, the line at ticketing was longer than usual and it seemed that everyone had under an hour to takeoff.  Then the underwire in my bra set off the metal detector at security (seriously?).

I waited in a tiny Plexiglas holding area for the woman who would pat me down.  She was a pinned-up, tiny-voiced moppet of a woman wearing blue plastic gloves.  I could see over the top of her head each time she came to inform me that she would be “right with” me before walking off to tidy the area around the conveyor belt.  Check me if I’m wrong, but does neatness really count if there is a Victoria Secret bomber in your midst? I’m just sayin…

Helplessly I looked at the guy moving luckier passengers through the line.  He sympathized but could only smile and shrug.  “Hey girl, I’d pat you down, but you know…”  He was cute, but I was stressing so my flirty comeback was tucked away in my carry-on.  Maybe next time.

Finally, the moppet let me out of my Plexiglas cell and I followed her to the body search area. Of course she had to explain the entire procedure beforehand while my laptop slid this way and that in the plastic bin balanced precariously on her hip.  I was agitated and didn’t bother to hide it.  I tried to use body language that would make it obvious that I was in impatient.  She responded with body language that said she was not.

I looked around for a clock.  Oh, did I fail to mention I left my cell phone at home?  I couldn’t even call anyone to complain about how much it sucked to be me at that moment.

“Thank you,” she said, signaling the end of our encounter.  The blue hands holding the metal sniffing wand left my body.  I packed up my things and left without a word.  By the time I got to the plane, people were lined up and ready to board.  I got on and found my seat—7B.  Great, I’m in the middle…of two guys.

Once seated, I was bugged all over again about leaving my phone, the work I had on my plate, the closeness of the seatback in front of me, a fussy baby a few rows up, that there was no movie on this almost four-hour flight, and the fact that everybody is onboard, but we’re not moving.  Why are we not moving?

As if on cue, the pilot’s voice—equal parts Elvis and Ryan Seacrest—came over the loudspeaker.  “Welcome to US Airways flight 196 with service to Phoenix, continuing on to San Diego.  We’ve had a bit of a problem.  One of the bags fell out of the overhead bin and, well, it fell on someone’s head.  It was a kind of a heavy bag, so we’re gonna have the paramedics come on board and make sure the passenger is okay before we take off.  Sorry for the delay.” And he was gone.

You could hear the groans from front to back.  I saw heads shake and eyes roll.  The attendants looked apologetic.  I was imagining a bag falling on top of my head unexpectedly.  That had to hurt.  And then suddenly, something hit me hard in my knower:  Did any of us really CARE that someone could be hurt?

It was the first time since I woke up that I wasn’t thinking about myself.  I was driven to the airport by a dear friend who took my keys and promised to overnight my cell phone to me.  If I’m being honest, I was more relieved than grateful and still bothered that I would be without it for the next 24 hours.

A man I don’t remember kindly directed me to the ticketing kiosk.  I checked my bag with a woman and took my luggage tickets from a guy I thanked but didn’t see because I was already walking away.

I remember the woman ahead of me in the security line because she was walking just slow enough to annoy me.  She had a really bad limp and it looked painful to walk.  How dare she not hurry when I was in such a hurry?  A moment later I was serving up attitude to the elfin security agent.  I did not smile at her.  I did not thank her.  I did not show her any kindness.

Tens of thousands of men, women, and children are dead and dying in Haiti today.  A 7.0 earthquake has leveled the island and destroyed countless lives in the process.  It has our attention because it is catastrophic, tragedy on a hideously grand scale.  Unfortunately it often takes such things to draw our focus and sympathy away from ourselves.

People walk dead and dying around us every day, but we don’t see them.  We don’t hear them gasping for air under oppressive lives.  They cry, but their tears dry on their faces and we don’t notice them.  Some of them live with us.  Some of them are us.

Then there are those who aren’t necessarily suffering, but their lives are waiting for us to enter with a smile, some respect, a kindness, or maybe just a little attention.  There will be no great acknowledgement that we were there, no rewards given, no fanfare.  Just a gentle reminder—given and received—that we are not alone.

Fear by Michelle Jones

There are some things I want to do, things I believe God has called me to do, but I find myself paralyzed. I am being strangled by so much fear. I’m afraid to try and fail, afraid to desire, afraid to be wrong, afraid to correct what I’ve already messed up, afraid to finish what I started, afraid of disappointing myself and others (again!), afraid to be afraid for crying out loud! I hate living like this, so I asked God to help me. I don’t know what to do when I’m afraid to do ANYTHING.

At first I thought, I need to deal with why I’m afraid. That proved useless, like putting off eating right in order to find out why you’re not eating right. Fear doesn’t relieve us of the responsibilities we have to do the things we are afraid to do. That seems unkind, but it’s true. Then it occurred to me that I might have been looking at fear the wrong way.

FEAR IS A FEELING. It is not something apart from me. “Facing my fear” is misleading imagery. Fear is not an enemy, someone or something set against me. We’re on the same side. It is a part of me. It is IN ME, like pleasure, hunger, or gloom. I can’t help that it is there, and I can only do something about it after it comes to the surface.

Feelings, I am fond of saying, are punctuation, and therefore should inform our actions or emphasize them, not direct or power them. Feelings are like 3 year olds. It’s okay to have them in the car, good or bad, loud or quiet, cute or ugly, nice or nasty as dog’s breath. JUST DON’T LET THEM DRIVE.

The prevailing thought is that something must be wrong with us when we’re afraid, that it means we are faithless. But we’re only wrong for giving in to our fear, not for having it. We’re only wrong if we let it drive us away from God. It can’t if we don’t turn the wheel over.

We Christians are fond of saying two things:  1) God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind. We conclude that if God didn’t give it to us, that The Enemy did. But did he? Can he do anything other than lie? Does he give us fear, or does he merely use it against us, distorting the truth with it? He uses lies to bring all of our feelings, good or bad, including fear, to the surface in hopes that we will allow them to drive us, making us our own gods and therefore drawing us away, so we can be enticed further.

2) Perfect love casts out fear. We take that to mean we are never supposed to be afraid. But God’s problem is not with how we feel, but with how we respond, whatever our feelings (“Be angry and sin not”).  He doesn’t charge us with the responsibility of casting out fear. That is the job of Perfect Love. It is His job if we will permit Him to do it. When we don’t, we are allowing fear to make Perfect Love irrelevant in us and ultimately through us. I think we also assume incorrectly that the fear we feel must be gone BEFORE we move forward. Rather, we should be moving forward with COURAGE. Courage is fear temporarily transformed and made useable by properly placed faith. How?

There’s this image I’ve been seeing a lot over the past couple of days or so, and I keep sensing that it is how I should respond when I am afraid.

I see this problem, project, person, promise, whatever, that is clearly bigger than I am. The problem is bigger than any solution I can come up with. The project is bigger than my ability to complete it. A person’s offense against me seems bigger than my willingness to forgive. Or my need for his/her approval is bigger than my own opinion of myself. Or my envy causes their life to become bigger and more impressive to me than God’s grace in my own life. The promise is bigger than my expectation or my disappointment has eaten away at my hope. Whatever the case, I hear the footsteps of something gigantic, and I am afraid to move, even though I know I’m supposed to.

Now common instinct finds me looking up to marvel at how big the giant is. Scary. Common wisdom tells me I should hide, cower, or run to avoid being trampled underfoot. But in the vision, I don’t do either.

In the vision, I don’t look up, and I don’t turn around. I get down on my knees, put my ear to the ground and listen. That seems odd to my logical mind. Giants are not quiet walkers. Do I really need to put my ear to the ground to hear one I already know is approaching? Plus, the closer I get to the ground, the louder the footsteps become, right? Not to mention, in this posture, to the giant, I look like a roach asking to get squashed.

But when I do this counter-intuitive, atypical, strange and peculiar thing, I hear God’s still small voice come up to me through the ground. It whispers, “That giant is big. I’m bigger than that giant.” That’s all He says. And I realize in that moment that it’s all He needs to say… because the next move is mine.

I have to believe Him. Not believe IN Him, but believe Him, the One in whom we all live, move, and have our being. The One for whom NOTHING is impossible. The One who loves me perfectly and knows me entirely, all the way down to my naked fear and trembling.

Courage is fear made useable by properly placed faith. Faith is the belief that God is who He says He is. Faith comes by hearing what He says. Hearing comes by listening. His whisper will drown out the sound of everything else if I just bow down, put my ear to the earth, and wait for it.

FDR was wrong. We need not fear “fear itself.” To be sure, God did not give us a spirit of fear, but with power, love, and a sound mind, He can use fear as an invitation to draw closer to Him so He can tell us what to do about those giants. And if we take Him at His word, He will give us the courage we need to kill every single one of them.

Too Much of a Good Thing by Michelle Jones

Some years ago I was flipping through channels and saw a news segment about a sheep who had become famous in New Zealand.  She had been given the name Shrek.  What a Disney ogre has to do with sheep is anyone’s guess, but the story got my attention…

Too much of a good thing?

…and then it changed my life.

Shrek was known throughout the sheepherding community.  She was a runaway who had been hiding up in the mountains for six years, and managed to elude recapture several times before the shepherds finally gave up and stopped responding to “Shrek sightings.”

One day a shepherd got a call from a woman who was hiking up in the mountains.  She said she was standing right in front of Shrek and that they could come up and get her.  The shepherd told the woman, who obviously lived under a rock, that she was not the first person who had gotten that close to the animal.  He assured her that by the time they took a man away from his work, gassed up the Jeep, and drove the hour or so up into the hills, Shrek would be long gone, no doubt laughing (if sheep laugh) at the latest mister who missed her.

“You won’t be disappointed,” said the woman.  “Shrek won’t run.  She can’t run.”

The woman took a picture with her phone and sent it down.  Shrek was carrying so much wool on her body that running had become at best an impossible dream.

A little-known fact about our wooly friends:  Sheep born and raised in the mountains never find themselves with too much wool.  They only grow what they need to survive.  Domestic sheep, particularly sheep that belong to a shepherd, are a very different story.  Domestic sheep get sheered, which causes their wool to grow wild and out of control.  Regularly relieving them of it, while good for business, is also necessary for their health and survival.

So after six years away from the clippers, it’s no surprise that Shrek was a bit heavy in the hooves.  The shepherds came up and got her.  The video showed her trying to take a step back when they approached, but she moved like a 300 lb man 1 six-pack, 2 pizzas and 3 quarters into a one-sided football game.  You ever ask that guy to take out the trash?  A head turn, a shift, a grunt, and he gives up.

I remember thinking Shrek looked kind of arrogant with all that wool on her, like she knew she had something people wanted—perhaps even needed—but she had the power to withhold it.

What’s your wool?  What, among your many talents and abilities, is the most obvious and useful to those around you?  Are you holding it hostage?

I’m a writer.  That’s my wool.  For years I kept it close, only pouring into my journals or waxing poetic onstage.  Aside from that, I was stingy because I had been hurt in the past, taken advantage of by people who didn’t care for me past what I could write for them.

I cultivated my other gifts, speaking, teaching, creating, shepherding leaders and others and offered them up instead.  I resented it when people introduced me as “Michelle the writer.”  I was more than that.  When I saw Shrek though, something clicked.

For years I had been saying, “Leave my wool to me!  Look at my leather, my milk, and my meat!  Use my intestines for sausage casings!  There’s so much more to me than my wool!”  How ridiculous is that?  You can’t even see the rest of a sheep until you get past its wool.

I have piles of things I have written that no one has ever seen.  Shouldn’t someone see them?  If I write my books, perhaps I’ll get to speak or teach about what I have written.  If I get my stories out, maybe I’ll make room for more.  If I continue blogging, I might inspire someone I’ve never met, tough people in cities I’ll never visit.  (ooh, elastic!)

If I write…

We’ve all been cheated or taken advantage of.  We have all been misused and abused for our gifts.  If our gift is worth anything—and all gifts are—there will be times when we are lonely because we will offer ourselves to others and they will cling only to what they need and leave the rest.

The way to most of what you have to offer the world goes through your most obvious gift or talent.  That is what will create space for you among people and in places off limits to others.  To be sure, there are poachers and thieves ready to take what they did not earn, and some of what you have will get away from you through painful lessons.  Still, what you have is not your own.  It was put in you to be given through you.  Give it freely and there will always be more of it.

Shrek was carrying 62 lbs. of merino wool on her back, enough for 20 men’s suits.  She was sheered and the money generated from the event was given to a local charity.

What are you carrying around that people need?  What are you holding onto that defines you in the eyes of others and gives you relevance in your community?  What space are you refusing to fill?

Do you have too much of a good thing?

Mind Over Mirror by Michelle Jones

Mirrors have no charm.  They are not in the business of mincing words or sparing feelings.  Spinach in your teeth, ketchup on your blouse, that booger you missed when you blew your nose; these are all things your friends and even strangers will pretend they don’t see, but the mirror will not hesitate to call you out for the slob you are.  There was a time I couldn’t go near one without it calling out something that was wrong with me.

Fat Girl!

Gray hair!

Surgery scar!

Get some sleep!

I used to think all mirrors were jerks, until photographs started yelling at me too.  Pretty soon, I didn’t even have to see my own image.  I could look at a woman in a magazine, on a television show, or clothes on a rack at Macy’s.  They were all telling me the same things:

You’re not small enough, pretty enough, young enough, rich enough, smart enough.

Your skin is flawed.

Your hands are not dainty.

Have you noticed that your breasts, which once pointed proudly at the horizon, are now focused on a point just beyond your toes?

I was secretly angry at the guys who were beside themselves about Halle, Tyra, Beyonce and others.  I was sick of designers who seemed to create their garments for stick women and not me.  I stopped trying on clothes at the store.  I didn’t like eating in front of people because I thought they were judging me with every morsel I put in my mouth.  (It didn’t matter that they weren’t, because I was doing enough judging on my own.)

One day it occurred to me that the mirror, the television, the photographs and magazines, all of them, had the same voice:  my voice. The mirror wasn’t the jerk.  I was.

Better lives don’t just come to us. They reveal themselves to us when we’re ready to live as we are and give up whining about who we are not.  Whining cheapens the privilege of drawing breath, robs us of our hope, and tells the world we serve a derelict God.  It is impossible to complain and say “Thank You” at the same time.  It is impossible to move forward, make corrections, or improve from where you are not.

Here’s the thing.  Sometimes we have to fight to have the life we want, not always, but sometimes.  Some of us have pounds to shed, others of us have businesses to grow, children to raise, or a degree to earn.  Whatever the case, the first “enemy” is always yourself, and your weapon is always the Truth.

If you had asked for help, not eaten so much, exercised, or gotten your degree, things would be different today. That’s a fact, not Truth. Truth is what IS, not what would have been.

You quit your job and might not find a better one in this economy.  You’re over 40 and may never marry or have children.  That is a possibility, not Truth. Truth is what IS, not what might be or even could be.

We move toward our desires by dealing with Truth and Truth only.  When we’re drowning in our complaints, Truth is the stone that rises up out of the sea for us to stand on.  Believing keeps us from sinking and leads us to more Truth and before we know it, we become men and women who walk on water.

I’m not married, I’m not Beyonce, and I’m not rich.  Those are facts.  The Truth is I’m a beautiful, brilliant woman.  My lines are more Autobahn than Route 66.  Perhaps one day I’ll meet a beautiful, brilliant man who can handle the curves.  The fact that I don’t know him today doesn’t dim my light.

My mirror still has no charm, but it is silent and I have learned to say “Thank You” for the body I have, the person I am, and the wisdom to take care of both. I have learned to hope for and work toward a better tomorrow from where I am, not where I’m not.

Where are you?

In Good Hands by Michelle Jones

Once in a great and wonderful while, if you tilt your heart at just the right angle, a sea of ordinary will offer up a pearl…

I was stopped at an intersection one afternoon, waiting for the light to change, when I saw a car on the opposite side of the street pull over to the curb.  A woman hopped out and went around to her trunk to retrieve a towel.  When I saw that she was walking out into the street, I checked behind her to see if there were any cars coming.  They were pretty far off, so I turned my attention back to her.

She was in the middle of the road, kneeling and reaching for what I now saw was an injured bird.  She covered his head with the towel so she’d be able to move him without scaring him.  If he had seen her hands moving toward him, he would have attacked and pecked at her, ignorant of her intentions.  Since he was helpless and blind, he just submitted.

She made it over to a patch of soft grass near some bushes, put him down, and then uncovered him.  He was still helpless, but he was in a better place.  Maybe he’d stay alive until he could fly again.  The odds were certainly against it, but I still hoped, you know?  Of course the bird had no hope.  He was likely just waiting to die.  In nature, only the fit endure.

Satisfied, the woman got back in her car and continued on her way.  My light turned green so I did the same.   As I drove, though, I prayed for that bird.  I prayed for him knowing that he couldn’t and wouldn’t pray for himself.  God understood and ultimately, the decision was His.

The pearl?

I have friends who have loved me enough to pray for me when I couldn’t pray for myself; to hope for me when I had no hope in me, and be my eyes when I couldn’t see past the black hole of my pain.  They didn’t ask my permission.  They knew I was too broken to walk or agree with them…so they interceded for me, without me.

The world says, “God helps those who help themselves.”  In actuality, God helps those who are helpless.

Thank God for God.

Showing Up by Michelle Jones

The sky was nothing nice the morning I flew back to Atlanta from Detroit.  It was cold and the grass was frosty.  They were expecting icy rain in the Motor City, and I was so glad I wouldn’t be there to see it.

My friend Monique’s father had passed away.  He had not been present in her life for most of her life, but she walked with him in his last days battling lung cancer.  Amazing! Grace like that comes straight from God. She made all the arrangements, calling aunts, uncles, and cousins she barely knew to tell them that their relative—in truth, a man she barely knew—had died.

The funeral was in Detroit, so I showed up—not for the service, for Monique.

When you think about it, “relative” is a pretty relative term.  “Family” isn’t always connected biologically, and many of us live, eat, and sleep with relative strangers.  What really makes us belong to one another?  How do onlookers know that you and me have a “we” between us?

The answer is simple, if not always easy to execute.  Whenever they can, family shows up.

In those few days with Monique, I was struck by the value of the GIFT OF PRESENCE.  We all have it, but I suspect it is one of the most under-used of our store of offerings.  We don’t know how much it means to others that we are in touching range, holding range, that our voices are carried on warm breath and not over wireless networks or through satellites.  There is a lot to be said for tight hugs, firm shoulders, and hands that wipe away falling tears.

Monique couldn’t be more my sister if we had entered this world through the same womb.  I prayed for her, talked to her, and counseled her, but nothing mattered more to her than my getting on a plane so I could be with her.  I was so grateful to be able to put a reassuring hand on her during the service, drive her around to run last minute errands to Kinko’s, or to have a place for her to retreat to when things got a little overwhelming.  We shared my bible and watched TV.  We ate too much, and playfully argued about who lost the spare room key (she did, of course).  We tried to see who could imitate Popeye’s laugh the best (I did, of course). We wept over the frailty of people, and the awesomeness of God.  We ate, shared, laughed, and cried TOGETHER.

Too quickly it was over.  We hugged and went to our separate airlines for our separate trips home, she to Los Angeles and me to Atlanta, carrying within us the gifts we received from one another.  I’m not always good at showing up, but being with Monique reminded me that it is the ultimate act of Love.

Love comes to see about you.  Love shows up as open arms when he sees you coming, without needing to know why you’re there.  Love shows up as ears listening for what you mean, not just what you say even if you say nothing.  Love is a card, a call, or some cash when it needs to be, but Love becomes flesh whenever the opportunity presents itself.

We are most alive when we are present, not just accounted for. Where did you last show up?

What You Don’t Know… by Michelle Jones

Contentment does not come naturally to us.  We’re not born with it.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  We’re born restless, greedy, ungrateful and unsatisfied.  We enter the world anxious, not hoping; angry that the life we now have is nothing like what we left or what we want.

We have to learn to be content, right alongside eating with a fork and riding a bike.  When was the last time you learned something?  I don’t mean studying a thing for the sake of knowing about it, but rather learning for the sake of evolving and growing because of it.

We wake up anxious and scared because we are focused on a life that might come to us. We wake up depressed if we are focused on the life we wish we had. We regret because we are trying to hold onto the life we could have had. The key to contentment is and has always been to learn in the life you have until you have a different life in which to learn.

If you’re challenged, learn endurance and patience. If you’re poor, learn humility and frugality. If it’s raining, learn what it means to be fruitful as opposed to productive, allowing change instead of forcing results.

In the winter, the trees are naked. They look dead and incapable of doing or giving much. But so much is going on IN them. Their lives continue and they make use of their moments until spring clothes them with flowers and leaves.

If you’re in winter, learn where your roots are and how deeply they run beneath the earth. Learn that nakedness doesn’t mean you have nothing. Learn that you are still alive and breathing, thinking and capable of loving others if you choose to. Learn that you are stronger than your circumstances, more than your history, destined for something greater than the world’s expectations or your parentage, and richer than what is in your pockets. Learn those things and be transformed by them.

If you’re tired, learn how to rest while you sleep, because you’ve learned to distinguish between burdens which belong to you and burdens which don’t. Learn to exercise your spirit by living what you know, not just what you feel. Learn that gratitude is not pretending that nothing is wrong, but a declaration that you have not been defeated by it.

The life you have is not the one you will always have.  But you can do more with your moments than let the clock consume them.  You can choose to be different when you leave them behind you and reach for tomorrow.

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