Why I Will Always Remember Michael Jackson
What I learned the summer he passed away
By guest writer Lauren Schwartz
My first memory of Michael Jackson is from a few years ago. It is vague. I don’t remember where he was or whom he was addressing, but he was speaking to an audience in an outdoor arena, and all I remember of that are three words he said at the end: God bless you. Those words struck me, the depth of emotion and sincerity with which he said them, unlike I’d ever heard before. Huh, I thought. He seems to really mean that, where did that come from? And just as quickly I forgot all about it.
Fast forward to June 25, 2009. That morning, I saw a blurb in my e-mail that Michael Jackson had been taken to the hospital. I didn’t think anything of it, assuming that celebrities get hospitalized for all kinds of reasons and that it was nothing serious. A few hours later, on my way to Blockbuster, a friend texted me with the news that the pop star had died. I replied that I’d heard he had been hospitalized and that was all, leading my friend to question his source. But within a few minutes he wrote back that yes, Jackson was dead.
It was shocking to me, in the way that any premature celebrity death is shocking. But there was also a sense that his death marked the end of the entertainment industry as we knew it. That notion seemed of great import to me. Days afterward, I was transfixed by media coverage of the event. It was surreal, and for some reason it amazed me that this icon was gone. However, I was not a Michael Jackson fan and I knew little to nothing about his career so it didn’t mean much. People would get over it. Life would go on.
As it turned out, life would not go on the same for me as it would not for many others. I remember the moment when I realized there was much more to the story of Michael Jackson than that of a superficial superstar. As I caught up on his music videos online, my cursory look at his career eventually extended over into interviews and magazine articles. One article in particular arrested my attention. On the cover of a 1987 People Magazine, Michael was quoted from a letter he had written to the press in which he said, "I was sent forth for the world, for the children. But have mercy, for I've been bleeding a long time now." I was taken aback. It was such dramatic sentiment, the likes of which sounded completely foreign coming from this most famous of entertainers. What in the world is he talking about? I wondered. I was intrigued by the sense of mission he alluded to as well as the private anguish, and so I began to do more research to understand the man who made that statement.
In the days following his death, my spare time was spent online going through the immense collection of footage that fans uploaded to YouTube. It was quite a privilege afforded by technology to go back and view so much of his life as it was documented on camera: interviews, speeches, awards ceremonies, performances, home videos. It was an even greater privilege to view these events sans the prejudice of prior knowledge. Everything was new to me, so that I was continually surprised by the man I saw. He was nothing like I would have imagined him to be. In fact, the more I looked at Michael Jackson one conclusion became singularly apparent: he reminded me of Jesus. He was so full of love and gentility in his interaction with other people it shocked me. Often Michael referred to the teachings of Jesus, specifically the admonition to humble ourselves as children, as the basis for the way he lived his life. There was such an innocence and purity about him that stunned me, and made me want to be the same. I knew I'd never seen anyone quite like him.
In one of the first television interviews that I watched, Michael talked to Barbara Walters circa 1997. I was surprised by the way he spoke. He had a soft high voice and expressed himself in an enthusiastic almost childlike manner. He was lighthearted and full of laughs, yet when talk turned to tabloids he seemed to plead with Walters to agree that the media should be kind in its treatment of celebrities, that the things said about him were "not nice" and "hurt [his] heart." I'll never forget the look of dismay on his face when she asked him if it was really the media's job to be kind. "To be kind...?" he replied. "What you saw what happened to Lady Diana [referring to the car accident that took her life]... you tell me." I remember thinking it was the perfect thing to say at that point, an inspired bit of wisdom for which Walters had no answer, reminiscent of the instances in scripture in which Jesus silenced his critics. Many times in other interviews, I would listen to the way he answered certain questions, questions meant to trip him up, and he'd just smile and respond with the perfect answer as though it came from above. It was in those times that I felt he wasn't speaking on his own.
I watched many of Michael's speeches, one for his 1993 Grammy Award. He came across as very humble and a bit shy, giggling at the audience's applause. However, there was a sadness in his eyes, and he hinted again at the emotional pain of his celebrity when he said, "I don't read all the things written about me. I wasn't aware the world thought I was so weird and bizarre..." It was obvious how much the negativity affected him. He went on to explain that having lost out on his childhood made him 'different', and was the reason he loved children and childlike things so much. He then thanked all the children around the world "including the sick and deprived," telling them "I am so sensitive to your pain." It was another eye-opening statement, one that made me again consider the kind of man he was that he cared so much for children and would use the spotlight as an occasion to bare his heart to the public.
Some of the footage that impacted me the most was a Maury Povich tv special which aired deleted scenes from the 2003 documentary "Living With Michael Jackson." These were scenes which according to Maury were never meant to be seen by the public, and so it is interesting that I came across the tv special before the actual documentary. In it Michael was unguarded, pouring his heart out to Martin Bashir about how he saw himself, the way he lived his life at Neverland, and the joy he received from helping children and being around them. It was hard to believe that the man known as the greatest entertainer of all time was the same guy in the video running around his property with a group of kids, laughing and playing with them, goofing around, being like one of them. Bashir remarked that it was "nothing short of a spiritually kind thing." And of Michael's own children he said, "It almost makes me weep when I see you with them. Your interaction with them is so natural, so loving, so caring." Michael's touching response seemed to me an echo of how God surely speaks about us. "I love them," he said, a smile of sheer delight spread across his face. "I would die for them... I'm crazy about them. I look into their eyes, everyday I make sure I do it. I say 'Look at me. I love you very much.'"
The more I learned about Michael, the more obvious it became that there was something very wrong with the public's view of this man. There was something very wrong with the way the media had presented him. And there was something very wrong with the fact that I and so many others did not know the truth about his life. He was, in my opinion, a living epistle and despite his worldwide fame too few were aware of his message. Too few cared. One of the last pieces of footage to cement my opinion of Michael Jackson was from his 60 Minutes interview in 2003. Six years before his death Michael was defending his good name, and he made the following statement that will forever bear witness to the truth of what his life was about. "I will never stop helping and loving people, the way Jesus said to. He said to continue to love. Always love..." Immediately tears poured from my eyes as I realized that's exactly what Michael Jackson had done. Despite tribulation, he'd continued to love. He'd given everything he had until the end.
For the next two weeks I was unable to sleep and many nights I cried uncontrollably. I was overcome by the fact that a great light had gone out in the world having never received the appropriate acknowledgment because he was so misunderstood and misjudged. I mourned that he had died needlessly and only after years of having his reputation maligned and his intentions for good in this world perverted. The tragic aspect of his story was almost unbelievable to me. Yet looking back, I know that surely I also wept for the beauty of the grace which encompassed it all, for it was God's hand that raised Michael up and God's hand that kept him throughout his life. I saw how God had been faithful to Michael Jackson for this very testimony: that His light and His love overcome the darkness. Every time I consider that I am moved to tears.
Therefore I don't think it any coincidence that Michael rose to prominence the way that he did. He was not without flaws and failings, but if ever I have wondered what Jesus was like when He walked the earth, Michael Jackson's life was a remarkable portrayal. It is as if his whole life was put on display before the world to give us a modern reflection of who Jesus is. Like Jesus, Michael was groomed for greatness from the time he was a young boy. There was a time at the height of his career that it could be said the whole world ran after him, just as was said of Jesus. Wherever he went people thronged him, he was adored by men, women and children alike. The deep love for his fellow man was known by nearly everyone who came in contact with him and for some it even had emotionally and physically healing effects. As Bernice King said at his memorial service, "He was such a thoughtful and selfless man, full of the unconditional love of God and good works that touched and changed lives."
Ultimately, the world was not worthy of him. Over time Michael became the object of ridicule and scorn, even to the point of being stripped naked and humiliated in a manner similar to Jesus. False accusations were brought against him and he was condemned in the court of public opinion. Like Jesus, Michael was hated without a cause. That is why, after his death, it was right that the world celebrated him once again. I remember almost wishing the news coverage would not end, for as people continued to honor Michael for all of the love and joy he had given, it was as though they were really honoring Jesus. The world was once again united, however briefly, behind a man who had represented Him very well on the earth. Whether they were aware of it or not, it was the image of Jesus in him that they so missed. And it was that image I had taken for granted in others, so that when I saw it in Michael Jackson it was all the more profound to me. I think I needed to see it in someone wholly outside of the Christian subculture so that I would understand the reality and the power of God's love beyond religious definition. Jesus was the treasure in Michael, and I am honored to have been given the opportunity to see it.
It was reported that three weeks before his death, Michael met with gospel singers Andrae and Sandra Crouch for prayer and to discuss new music he was making which he desired to be more spiritual. He asked them about the anointing of the Holy Spirit, about "what makes your hands go up" and what "makes you come out of yourself and gives a spirituality to the music." He also asked the Crouches to sing one of his favorite songs by them "It Won't Be Long [We'll Be Leaving Here]." One can't help but notice the prophetic significance of that song so close to the end of his life and that its message apparently meant a lot to him. It is interesting to me that at the end of his life, that is what he was focused on: making music that was spiritual and anointed. I wish he'd been able to do that. But I'm sure now that he's in heaven that's exactly what he's doing.
About 4 months after Michael's death I began to have dreams about him. Up until then I had not been sleeping well, nor had I had any dreams. But for four nights in a row, I slept ten hours straight as if someone had knocked me out, and each night I dreamed of Michael. The third night I dreamed I saw Michael sitting at a piano in the middle of a beautiful white desert surrounded by mountains. Rose petals lay across the keys, and Michael was composing a song about how much he loved Jesus. It was a pretty melody but I don't remember it now. He looked at me and said, "Jesus was my mentor. He was the reason I was who I was, and I wanted people to know that. I didn't say it openly in my music..." he paused for a moment and smiled, as though acknowledging that had been a mistake, "but if you listen to some of my songs, I am singing about Him." Then another man appeared in front of me. Affirming Michael's words he said, "Yes, Michael had a very close relationship with Jesus." My last dream had to do with honoring people in mainstream society who are Christian, and of the necessity of the Church to recognize such people, including Michael Jackson.
It just so happened that I had the day off on the occasion of his memorial service that aired around the world. I remember it was a beautiful day, the morning sun shone through my bedroom window and I sequestered myself in that room for the entirety of the coverage. It was an incredibly moving ceremony. The eulogies of those who knew Michael personally were a powerful testament to him, and I was unable to hold back tears. I was most impressed by Al Sharpton, who made the consummate statement of the memorial when he looked at Michael's children and declared, "Wasn't nothing strange about your daddy! It was strange what your daddy had to deal with..." My heart could have stopped for the power of those words. They reverberated with a righteous authority that I felt did not come from Sharpton but from God. As the audience rose to its feet in thunderous applause, I sensed in that one statement heaven's vindication of the life of Michael Jackson. In that one moment, you understood how God saw him and you appreciated everything God had done in him.
Some ask why he was taken so early, especially considering the new tour he was about to embark upon after his long absence from the stage. But I don't think his death was in vain. It seems more likely that his mission was over, his purpose on this earth fulfilled. He certainly didn't have anything more to prove. I feel there is a calling on those who understand what he was about, to learn from and continue his example. I'll never forget the revelation of God that I saw in him. Hanging on my wall is a picture of a young Michael Jackson dressed in a sparkly military-type jacket. He is poised and sure. Kingly. That picture is symbolic to me of the greatness that is possible before God, the stature we are called to attain. Every time I look at it I am reminded of the promise that if you humble yourself before God He will exalt you. Michael was called a king on earth, but more importantly he is known as a king in heaven. I look forward to the day I'll meet him in heaven so that I can thank him for what was imparted to me through his life. I will always remember the summer of his passing - and my discovery of his life - as a time of joy and peace. And light.
Michael, as you once wrote in a letter to a friend, let me say "I'm glad God chose me and you." And as you were so fond of saying to others, I will finish with the same words I first heard from you. God bless you.
When All is Said and Done
I remember one man said of him
"I looked into your eyes - they were kind"
So I began to think about mine
And what would be said on that day
When You look upon my face
I'll hope You see the same in my eyes
Truth and not lies
Love without compromise
Because that's what I saw in him
The beauty was absolute
A reflection of You