Father Figure by Michelle Jones

My dad was not a nice man.  In fact, sometimes he could be a real jerk.  I don’t think he liked me much.  If he ever smiled at me, I didn’t know it.  This morning though, I was really grateful for him.  He showed up in one of those impish flashes of memory that dart from one corner of your mind to another.  It was an odd appearance at an odd moment, or so I thought.

I was working out for the first time in a very long while; my thighs muscling the rest of me nowhere fast on the elliptical.  Ten minutes in I felt a hundred years old. The iPod was pouring Justin Timberlake into my head, but I couldn’t hear JT over my labored breathing.  I gulped down another mouthful of water.  It seemed to evaporate as soon as it hit my throat.  Eyes closed, I tried to “see” the songs, but the pictures didn’t stay long before my body reminded me that I…AM…DYING!

The only thing I could think about without interruption was quitting.  My feet, legs, arms, lungs and heart, even my bladder (all of a sudden the water’s got something to say!), every part of me was whining now.  They were all saying the same thing:  “This is haaarrrrd!”

“IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE HARD!”

The voice in my head cut through everything I was thinking and feeling.  It was my own voice, but not the one I have now.

I was 8 years old, maybe 40 pounds if you put rocks in my pockets, wild haired and energetic, with a mouth as big as I was small.  My tiny balled up fists were perched on bony hips, and wide eyes filled up with angry tears too stubborn to fall.

I was yelling up at my father whose face was a strange mixture of annoyance and shock.  He was good at shutting me down with an insult.  It was the quickest way to get me to leave him alone.  That day I had asked for help with my math.  My father was very smart, but he had no patience.  Sometimes he seemed to me a wonderful, treasure-filled house that had no doors and no windows.  There was just no way in.

He tried explaining the work for a few minutes, and then gave up, but I kept asking questions because I hadn’t given up.  Finally, he did what he always did when he wanted me to go away.  He said something mean.

He told me the problem was not the math.  It was me.  The answers were there, he said, but I was too stupid to see them.  Being stupid was like being nothing to my dad.  His mind was the only thing he’d let you admire about him.  It was also his weapon of choice.

Stupid.

If my father had chosen to punch me in the gut with all his strength, I would have had more air left in me than I did in that moment.  I couldn’t breathe.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

Stupid.

He stood there, watching me the way you watch a building demolition.  First you hear the muffled sound of explosions from inside the structure.  Then you wait, because you know that the real beauty is in how it crumbles—without noise or a lot of drama, neatly and completely.  He was waiting.  We both were.

Stupid?

That word whirled around dangerously in my head, smashing into everything I knew about myself, until it crashed quite unexpectedly into something big and immovable.  My father’s words had collided with Truth.

I almost didn’t recognize it.  I was so used to believing the smartest man I knew.  I had never disagreed with him before.  But here was something so simple and right, that as soon as I saw it, I understood it and it became a part of me.  When I looked up at my dad, I was pissed.

“This is 5th grade math!  I’m in the 3rd grade!  IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE HARD!”

It was the only argument I remember having with him.  It was the last time I asked him for help.  It was the first time I knew I was smart.  And it was the first time I knew that it was okay for something to be hard.

I finished my workout today without quitting.  It occurred to me that I spend way too much time in this life trying to take the “work” out of my workouts. There is value in knowing something is hard and doing it anyway.  The fact that something is hard doesn’t mean you’re nothing.  It means you’re at the edge of yourself.  It’s an invitation to become something more.

Thanks Dad.

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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.

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?

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