The recent death of “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali reminded me of something I learned many years ago…how perfect always seems to come from imperfect.
I spent my childhood watching Muhammad Ali’s boxing matches, many of them available for free through television, especially before the 3 1/2 years he wasn’t allowed to box. I found his “showmanship” at times to border on darn right cruel, especially the personal comments and taunting regarding Joe Frazier, another great boxing champion. Muhammad Ali also seemed to struggle in his personal life at times too (who doesn’t?). In those early days, (although a hero for many, many people who felt they didn’t have a voice with our society’s injustices or even an opportunity to live the ‘American Dream’ – yes, I am speaking of Black Americans) – it would have been difficult to imagine the world-wide respect the man had gained by the time of his death. He has been embraced for not only his skills and courage, but for his entire spirit. Muhammad Ali transcended his imperfections and in a way became the perfect champion…a champion of the world in more ways than one. His faith seemed to be the foundation of his transformation. He really did become “The Greatest.”
The first time I really noticed this ‘perfect from the imperfect’ came during a really sad time for our family. My paternal grandfather was the most interesting man I ever met. He was a machinist with the ability to make anything from anything. He was a carpenter, a mechanic, a harmonica player, a gardener. He was very, very funny and could make anybody laugh. He was spontaneously funny. He loved his family beyond limits…and many of us were afraid of him. You see he had another side of uncontrollable rage, especially when under stress. Riding in a car that he was driving was nothing anyone should ask a child to do. When four of us cousins were in the back seat and Grandpa was at the wheel, Grandma would look back at us with pleading eyes as if to say, “Don’t open your mouths. Don’t even breath through you mouths.” If somebody would pull out in front of him, even if we could barely see the offending driver’s car, Grandpa would say, “I otta ram the the sonuvabitch,” and sometimes, nearly would. If he knew a trip should be completed in 62 minutes and 30 seconds, he got very irritated if it took any longer. You would be better off wetting your pants then asking for a restroom stop…even if the trip was 18 hours long. (I am not kidding.) At times, some of us used to question his brain chemistry. He was very difficult to live with.
He married Grandma when she was 16 years old, smack dab at the start of the Great Depression. They picked cotton once in Arizona, but had to sneak out in the middle of the night because they owed the company store more than they would ever earn. (Listen to that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song that says, “I owe my soul … to the company store”… Sixteen Tons, I think.) My father lived in a cave for awhile with his parents during this time. Yes, Grandma had her hands full and from time to time they would have an argument that required a long cooling off period…weeks. But, if I haven’t said so yet, I adored this man, as we all did. He was imperfect as could possibly be. Still, what I wouldn’t give to have 5 more minutes with him – perhaps churning homemade ice cream while he played his harp.
One day, we received the news that my Grandpa had liver cancer and there was not much that could done. It was during his physical decline that I saw imperfect love turn into a perfect love. Weakened, and hardly able to move, my Grandpa would lay on the living room rug with my Grandma by his side. They would just lay there for the longest time…holding hands. My eyes tear up today just thinking about those moments. Somehow, this volatile relationship had been transformed into one of pure love, peace and kindness. I watched in amazement. The lesson was stamped firmly in my heart.
I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for 40 years the other day. He was always very opinionated especially how one should live a good Christian life. (I failed.) Although his rigidness always bothered me, and he was even more opinionated 40 years later, there has always been something I liked about him… a lot. As I knew it would, he brought the conversation around to living a Godly life. I, hesitated for a moment, and then said, “You know the one lesson I have learned from life these past 40 years is that God can create the perfect from the imperfect. In fact, nearly every story in the Bible is about the imperfect becoming perfect.” He nodded his head, but I don’t think he really believed me. But, that is ok, I believe me. I see it in my own family. I, too, was a very imperfect father…but my family transcended that imperfection to create a truly authentic, warm, loving family. For that I thank God for taking the imperfect and creating the perfect.
Warm regards to all the imperfect people who read this and know we too might become “The Greatest.”