Defocus Me

A man with gnarled hands appears at my train window.

Instinctively I jab a mental button that raises a screen between us. It’s an art that’s been perfected by years of practice- the art of ‘defocusing’-blurring out troubling details you don’t want to engage with.

Perhaps it started when I was a little girl with mum pulling me past their outstretched hands and yearning faces – “don’t look at them or you will have to give them something”, she warned.

Over the years I’ve put this inbuilt ‘defocus setting’ to good use. I’ve used it to block out the lustful stares of men as I walked down the narrow streets that led to the local train station . The same for piles of stinking garbage that spills into the streets of even our biggest cities, for inebriated men sprawled on sidewalks, for women with unwashed hair and clothes, for children with runny noses playing with broken toys..the list is endless…and we all know the list. I’ve learned to walk down the streets of my country by relegating everything that I don’t want to see to a fuzzy, de-focused background.

As I wait for the train to start, I recollect the excerpt of a speech I’d heard only a few days before by Harsh Mandir on TED talk. (look him up on the internet if you don’t know who he is). He was saying that what concerned him more than the poverty and deprivation of our country was the lack of concern towards it.

As I reluctantly process the implication of my thoughts, my children stare with wide-eyed, open curiosity at the man with the gnarled hands. Their stares embarrass me. I am tempted to repeat mum’s advice – “don’t look at ‘them‘”. I realize I’m trying to wear -out the persistence of the beggar with my trance-like expression. Eventually he moves on…and I relax.

I know this must change. ‘Looking’ precedes ‘doing’. I guess that’s probably why we don’t look in the first place. Could it be a way of shielding our nervous selves from the heart-break and inconvenience of action?

I want to learn from my kids. I want to ‘defocus me’ and start seeing again.

Life Assignment: Stand on the Road with Jug!

It was a stray sentence spoken at church last Sunday but it’s remained lodged in my mind ever since.

One guy’s life assignment was nothing more than to stand on the road holding a jug of water! The occasion was the last meal that Jesus would have with his twelve disciples. In preparation for it he sends two of the twelve out and tells them to follow a man who they’ll meet on the road holding a jug of water.

What were this man’s assignments prior to this moment? – nobody knows. Did he do anything exceptional post this encounter? – nobody knows! But this one act – standing on the road with a jug of water is what he’ll go down in history for! History told from God’s point of view that is!

So I’m in the middle of my morning jog, my mind working a bit slower than my legs and I’m pouting a bit over my life, when I’m reminded about what was shared this past Sunday.

Those of us who dream of making a big splash in our little ponds need this sober reminder – at the end of day, what may be noted down about us in the eternal records might simply be – “she stood on the road with jug” – and that ‘little- big’ one thing may be what satisfies God’s soul and ours.

21 May 2019:
Lessons from Michael Jr.

Prem, my husband has his headphones on and is laughing loudly as he watches a video of some dude on his laptop. As is usually the case, he has no idea of how loud he’s laughing! But his laughter is madly infectious and pretty soon I find myself giggling even though I haven’t the faintest clue why!

Turns out that Prem is watching a video of a stand up comedian called, “Michael Jr.” When I ask him what’s so funny, he looks at me with a mildly surprised expression – how did I know he was watching something funny?! Of course he’s completely unaware that he was laughing, let alone laughing at volume 10! Now it’s my turn to look surprised! (actually this is one of those things that continually surprises me about him) – how can one laugh and not even be aware of it?!

Anyway to get to the point : ) Prem tells me that this man ‘in’ the laptop, “Michael Junior” had one of those dramatic turn-around moments in life when he realized that his career as a stand-up comedian was entirely focused on ‘getting laughs’ from people. What changed for him was focus – he decided that rather than doing that, i.e, making himself the centre, he was going to ‘gift laughter’ ..gift joy to others! From the moment this realization hit, he started visiting joy-starved places – hospitals, old-age homes and the like, ‘giving laughter’ and reviving souls!

There’s something profound here folks! I ask myself, how much of what I do (ostensibly for others) -writing, speaking, mentoring, counselling, cooking, exercising etc boils down to wanting self-validation? How hungry we are for human approval – it’s like a cavern within that gets filled only to empty itself out again! What would it be like to do all that I (we) do with the sole motive of ‘giving’? – giving laughter, giving hope, giving a shoulder..giving..ourselves. Surely it would significantly change our paths as it did Michael Junior’s..

To follow Jesus is to follow the path of love.
And the path is a thorny one
.

Jesus condensed the whole requirement of God into two simple statements – Love God. Love your neighbor. And before his death, He gave one more final command to his inner circle of disciples – “love each other”.

So what then is love, this thing that God puts such a massive emphasis on?
Is it hugs, kisses and affirmative words? Birthday surprises, laughter, good times? Shared secrets, meals and WhatsApp groups? Exchanging smiles, wishes, prayer and stories on Sunday mornings?

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus, begs the community there to walk in unity and then adds, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant sacrificial offering to God” .

As I turned this sentence over in my mind, in particular the words, “gave Himself up‘, it occurred to me that what God calls love is so vastly separate from our own perceptions of it. Walking in love, Paul says, is to love like Christ loved. In short, it is to give ‘self’ away – or to use Paul’s words, it is to “give oneself up”! A quick reflection on my own life revealed that what I call love has often stopped short of what God calls love. That is, my love always stops short of giving my ‘self’ up.
When self hurts, love stops.
I’ll love you till you deeply offend me (hurt my pride). I’ll make time for you if it doesn’t cost me all my afternoon naps. I’ll hang out with you if you don’t have ‘attitude’. I’ll reach out to you, if you’re not too difficult to reach out to. I’ll pick up your calls if you don’t call too often – for then you’re becoming co-dependent on me! You see, I’ll love you as long as I feel good about loving you!

It’s like we erect careful walls around our precious, fragile selves and love outside those self-made boundaries. The minute those boundaries are impinged upon, we raise our “trespassing prohibited” signs and hastily withdraw indoors. Needless to say that in situations of abuse boundaries are needed…. But what I’m referring to here is the tight grip we maintain on ‘self’ in the everyday routines that define our lives ( and eventually our future).
We are fearfully cagey about our time, our space, our money, our feelings, our ‘wants’ and ‘don’t wants’. We hug our ‘self-life’ tight and love others to the extent that it doesn’t cause us hurt, discomfort or sustained inconvenience.
In other words, we continue to love ourselves the most.

What I’m seeing with greater clarity now is that this is not the way Jesus loved. Shortly before his death he said to his disciples – “this is my body broken for you -take and eat. This is my blood poured out for you – take and drink” – a symbolic representation of his death on the cross and the life we would have by believing in Him. Jesus gave himself up, poured ‘self’ out – fully, unabashedly and without reserve for the world that God so loved ..and it is this love we are called to imitate.

And that’s why love is war. For to love..to truly love requires us to war against our natural instincts to protect, preserve and pamper self. The war is not against people, but rather against ourselves, as we make choices to love others despite our desire to push away!

Yep…all this seems challenging at first read. It does to me too! But I know that it leads me to helpless dependence on God who has made it possible for all who believe in Him to live in this other-centered, freeing way.

There’s more I have to say on this, but I’ll leave that for next week . ..there’s more than enough to chew on for today, me thinks!