"Wrestling with an Angel" The Book

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Monday, February 25, 2013

No More Tears

Last Sunday, as I was changing Jake’s clothes, (after a gallant but failed attempt to get him to the bathroom on time) I slid his leg braces off his crooked feet and stared for a while at the devices that are supposed to help him walk.

“AFO’s”: ankle-foot-orthotic. I hate them. He hates them. But like his thick glasses and his Springboard communication device, they have become so much a part of his life and body, he cannot do without them.

I glanced up in time to watch Jake wrestle his coat off and then his shirt. He grunted and fought with his sleeves in a noble battle, nearly toppling over from unbalanced determination. As he struggled to free himself from his outer garment, I sensed his irritation, which only amplified my own desperation to care for this broken boy.

My face seems to be scarred these days with the dried and salty tear tracks of weary frustration.  I cry more than people know—more than a man likes to admit. Still I fight to keep composure, “No more tears. Someday, no more tears.” I quietly remind myself.

In the midst of the wreckage, like so many times before, my mind is carried to a sheltering place of wonderful assurance and future grace. I have it memorized:

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:20-21)

What does this promise mean to a desperate dad and his disabled son? In my most vivid, imaginative and reoccurring dreams—it looks something like this:

I’m walking with Jesus through a wheat field (I’m not sure why I always envision a wheat field, it just seems right…and biblical). The sun is shining brighter than I have ever seen it shine—at least it looks like the sun, only more brilliant, loving and personal. It penetrates everything with a powerful presence. The sky is electric blue decorated with sparse, white-cotton clouds. The temperature is mild and the wind is gently blowing a hint of honeysuckle into my nose, reminding me of childhood summers when life was new and worries few.

Jesus is silent as He walks, and He's smiling. He is setting the pace and occasionally turning his head to look at me. His hands are held out just below waist level as he lets them glide gently over the heads of wheat. It’s as if he has a certain purpose in mind, a surprise of some sort. His smile grows wider and warmer as we get closer to our destination.

I want to look around and take in the scenery—I’m certain it’s breathtaking, but His face is all I can focus on at the moment. I cannot take my eyes off Him. He is inviting, comforting, safe and filled with so much joy! I am completely satisfied and without fear in His presence.

I have a strong desire to take His hand like a little child and never let go, but all my faculties are so captivated by His presence that none of my voluntary senses will respond. I can only look on Him and enjoy—and yet that is enough.

The beauty of the azure-blue sky outlines His face and the brilliance of the Great Light behind Him nearly blinds my peripheral vision as it breaks through His thick, dark hair.

Suddenly He stops, closes His eyes and slightly nods His head as if answering a silent whisper. Turning towards me, He places one hand on my shoulder and with the other He touches His finger to my chin and physically, but gently, turns the gaze of my face forward to a lone figure walking from the edge of the wheat field.

The unfocused silhouette begins to move towards us. His shoulders are broad and his gate is smooth, like a warrior running into battle. For just a moment I wonder if we are in danger, but then I remember I am with Jesus.
As the figure gets closer, the first facial feature I can make out is a smile, warm and inviting—beaming with joy. He slows to a gallop just short of reaching us; then walks, and then stops. There is a familiarity in his presence.

The wind blows through the wheat field as Jesus softly laughs and affectionately nudges my shoulder.

“Go see!”

I walk towards the lone figure, and the mysterious character places his hands on his hips, throws back his head, and laughs. The closer I get, the more I begin to understand.

“Dad, it’s me!” The man proclaims with a strong baritone voice.


I begin to move with urgency towards him, running hard and then falling like a child into his arms. A long embrace is mixed with rejoicing, then weeping, then astonishment and joy. Gripping him with a father’s love, I kiss his chiseled cheek and bury my face into his neck. He smells like the field—earthy, strong, clean and sweet.

“ Jacob! My son!”

Grasping his shoulders, I gaze on his face. “Look at you son! Look at you!”

We stare at each other for a second and I step back, scanning him from head to toe and taking in his sharp demeanor. His hair is thick and glowing auburn like the peak foliage of a sugar maple in fall. His eyes are glistening hazel, clear and focused.  With no thick, smudgy glasses to hinder his view, he returns a sharp and steady gaze.

“Look…at…you!”  I repeat in complete wonder.

He smiles with uncontainable elation and raises his arms, turning 360 degrees for a full inspection. “You should see how fast I can run! You want to race me?”

“I…I don’t think I can run right now, son.” I respond, stunned with complete awe.

“Come on dad! Let’s go, on three!” He playfully challenges as he runs in circles around Jesus and me, darting straight and cutting on a dime from side to side.

Jesus laughs.

“You always did like to run.” I reply, my mind blinking back to crooked legs, plastic braces and clumsy feet. Oh how I hated those braces. “Yeah, but now I don’t fall—ever!” He smiles as he leaps through the air. “I can run like the wind!”

He finally comes to an abrupt stop and faces me, placing both hands on my shoulders, forcing my full attention. His smiling demeanor turns dead serious, “And wait till you hear me sing!”

The volume of his voice decreases as he closes his eyes, “I have all these songs in my head.”

His elation returns as the volume increases with the speed of his excited tone, “Remember that song you used to sing to me when you brushed my teeth? By the way, LOOK at my TEETH!” He smiles his familiar, contagious smile and opens his mouth wide for inspection. “And that song mom used to sing when she put me to bed. And that song you sang when you woke me up and every time you washed my hair? That really helped me get through my bath time, by the way. I always wanted to tell you that, but…well you know.” 

“And all those songs we sang in church…I know them ALL!”

He is talking so fast, so eager and so clear, like he has been waiting to talk all his life. I could barely keep up with all he was saying and found myself joyfully adrift with the simple tone of his voice and the beautiful inflection of his words.

Suddenly and spontaneously he stops talking, looks skyward, and begins to sing,

“Before the throne of God above, I have a strong and perfect plea:
A great High Priest, whose name is Love, who ever lives and pleads for me.”

His voice is smooth and beautiful, deep and articulate. It grows bolder with anticipation and excitement as his eyes move from the sky, back to me, and then to Jesus. He points to the Savior as his focus grows intent.

“My name is graven on His hands, my name is written on His heart;
I know that while in heaven He stands, no tongue can bid me thence depart.
No tongue can bid me thence depart.”

Jesus smiles in reply to the satisfaction of his worship.

“Show him your hands Jesus! Show him your hands!” Jake excitedly concludes his hymn of praise just as abruptly as it began.

“I learned a new song too! Wait till you hear it, dad.”

“I cannot wait to hear it, son.”

We talk and sing throughout the day—a day that never ends—as we stroll and run without tiring under the brilliant blue sky. We talk about the years of his disability, the suffering, confusion and pain.  We talk about the things he missed, and the things I missed—the hurt and the frustration, the laughter and the joy. There is forgiveness in his tone and grace in his words—so much grace. He is so excited to tell me everything, and I am so ready to listen.

Jesus is between us, in our midst. He puts His arm around Jake and reaches over and wipes my cheek with the sleeve of his garment. “No more tears", He gently commands. “Today, no more tears”.

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." (Hebrews 11:1)

Monday, February 11, 2013

"I Will Not Let You Go"

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:24-26)

I got into a fistfight last week.

Well, I suppose you could call it a fistfight. I got hit about 10-12 times without landing a single punch myself. It’s been a while since I have been in a fight. As a police officer, I probably get into more fights than the average middle-aged man. But at 46, my reflexes are not what they used to be—so I got a little beat up.

It all started when I attempted to make a man do something I thought he should do. I grabbed his shirtsleeve and directed him in the direction I wanted him to go. I’m usually pretty good at directing people. Apparently he was not having the best day and this was not the direction he wanted to go, so he responded by taking a swing at me.

I managed to duck the first blow and easily redirect his momentum; moving him through the open door of my pickup truck where he landed square on his back in the front seat. With his back to the seat, he reached for anything he could throw in my direction to keep me away from him, which happened to be a set of car keys, a water bottle and an ESV Bible.

The keys missed my head by a couple of inches and I managed to dodge the water bottle, but the bible hit me right in the chest—resulting in an out of context (yet unforgettable) illustration of Hebrews 4:12.

As he searched the cab of my truck for something else to launch at me, I took advantage of the distraction and rushed forward through the doorway. He caught me with an up-kick to my midsection but I managed to grab both his legs and pin them to the dash.

My tunnel-vision-focus on his legs left his hands unsecure and I was met with five or six quick strikes to the back of my head with his fist, followed by several scratches to my scalp and face from his fingernails.  

Believe it or not, my mind instinctively went back to a basic rule from my initial police training, “Watch the hands! Hands kill. If you control the hands, you control the fight.”

I abandoned his legs and latched on to his wrists, pushing his fists into his chest while simultaneously wrapping my leg around his ankles to control his feet. His explosive strength and speed humbled my aging muscles and slower reflexes, but at least I was now in control of the situation—or so I thought.

About the time I was catching my breath and making a new game plan, I felt a sharp, vice-like lock on my forearm and looked up to see the man clenching his teeth down on my jacket sleeve. My jacket was thick enough to keep the bite from penetrating skin, but the initial shock of the pain made me instinctively react.

Still holding his wrists, I broke away from the bite and lodged my elbow and forearm under his chin forcing his head back, his mouth closed, and averting any possible head butting or biting retaliation. The only offense he had left was to spit in my direction, which he did several times between primal screams of violent anger. I took the spit. It was better than the alternative.

Turning my face to avoid most of the projectile spray, I just happened to glance to the back seat of the truck where I saw my wife, daughter and teenage son.  The look on their faces made me realize how serious this incident had become.  I needed to end this fight.

With one last burst of adrenalin-fueled energy, I lifted the man to his feet and out of the seat. Still holding his wrists I swept his legs with my left foot and took him to the ground in the soft snow beside the door of the truck.  The powder absorbed most of the impact allowing me to move to a superior position.

As I pinned his arms to the ground with my hands, I knew by the look on his face the fight was almost over. He continued to struggle and spit, but he was quickly running out of gas. I held him there in the snow till the ice absorbed his energy and cooled his rage.

“Are you finished?” I muttered, nearly out of breath. “I’m not letting you go.”

He struggled one last time and then nodded his head in surrender. I slowly, but cautiously, helped him to his feet and dusted the snow from his back.  This fight was over. I loaded him into the truck and continued on to our destination.

The man I was fighting is not some deranged criminal; he is my son.  Autistic and non-verbal, he is a two-year-old in a twenty-year-old body. Like most two-year-olds, he throws fits from time to time. Unlike most two-year-olds, he can do a lot of damage.  He can hurt my wife and seriously hurt my daughter, and he can almost whip me. Almost.

It all began as we were headed out the door going to a Super Bowl party. He wanted to take his IPad. I said, “No” and he transformed into the Incredible Hulk.

Sitting in the truck with a protective arm around my son, I began to think how the Lord could possibly be in this. I thought of big words like “sanctification” and “sovereignty”, even “Imago Dei” and “Fearfully and wonderfully made”. These are bold and profound words I admittedly preach louder when the times are less painful.

Then, as the adrenaline dump sapped all of my remaining strength, a glaring image flashed through my head of a man struggling to get away. He cursed his family and His Lord. He fought against love and kicked against the goads. He spit in the face of the One who loved him most. But despite the rebellion and violence, even through the worst of sin and insurrection, his Father would not let him go—holding Him tightly till all the defiant energy was spent.

I am that man.

“I will not let you go.” I remember those words of tough love and bloody redemption very well, spoken by the Father of my salvation and echoed by the wife of my youth. I am eternally grateful for their tenacious gospel grip.

Jake finally settled down and apologized with tears, hugs and kisses. I wonder how he can vacillate so quickly between innocent bliss and animalistic violence. I wonder how much longer my strength will hold out. But no matter how he acts, he will always be my son. I will fight his rebellion with all my strength and all my love, and I will never let go—because I was never let go.

Child bitter with rage, blind and broken under this weight.
Seek Me first and you will find,
righteousness for your heart and peace for your mind.
I came to find you; in Me you will be found.

No matter what, no matter what may come.
No matter what may come, I will not let you go.”

Joel Pakan (Tangled Blue)