I know it is going to be a long church service when we sit down in our seats and Joel refuses to take off his hat and coat. Not five minutes later he is saying, “it’s time to go.”
This presents quite a problem, considering his dad and I are giving the talk that day. A talk about God’s grace, as He has taught us through Joel. Joel is 32 years old, and he has autism.
Our usual back-up people, the ones who know Joel well and could normally be counted on to take him out for a walk or a ride if his anxiety reached an intolerable level, are on vacation. What will we do if Joel has a melt-down? Both of us are needed to give the talk—that’s the way we’ve planned it. It’s been months since Joel has been unable to sit through a worship service. We did not expect this!
During worship Joel keeps looking at the door. “Time to go,” he pronounces, loud enough to hear over the keyboard and vocals. “Take off your coat,” I whisper. “Get comfortable. You love this song!”
No way. He is up and moving into the aisle, then bolts for the door. Wally follows. I close my eyes. Come, Lord Jesus. We want to share about your grace today. We need a big dose of it right now!
Wally and Joel come back in the door. Joel refuses to sit, so the two of them stand in the aisle, Wally singing, Joel looking anxiously toward the door.
I close my eyes again. Come, Lord Jesus! We need you! We can’t give this talk if Joel can’t stay through the service!
Suddenly, I sense a warm presence behind me, and the softest of kisses lands on the top of my head. It feels like warm oil has been poured on my head and is running down through every cell of my body. My tension drains away.
It’s an extraordinary feeling. Supernatural, even.
I turn around, half-way expecting to see Jesus, or an angel, standing behind me.
There stands Joel. His goofy winter hat, the one with ear flaps—totally inappropriate for this cool spring day—sits crookedly on his head.
He smiles at me, and leans down to kiss my head again.
Instantaneously, my eyes are opened to the very real presence of the Lord in that sanctuary with me.
I think of the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35. It was three days after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial as they walked the seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. I think of Jesus walking with them as they discussed all of the awful things that had just transpired, and how they were too sad and traumatized to recognize that it was the risen Lord walking alongside them. I think of Jesus going through the Scriptures with them, saying, “So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can’t you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don’t you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26 The Message) I think about the way they invited this stranger to stop and eat dinner with them, even though he called them thick-headed and slow-hearted, and how their eyes were opened to who he was as he broke bread and blessed it. I think of how they asked each other, “were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road and opened the scriptures for us?” Luke 24:32. I think of how thick-headed and slow-hearted I am. How the Lord is walking with me all of the time through the Holy Spirit within me, and how often I am too sad or anxious or stressed to recognize him.
Worship ends. The three of us walk to the front, and are given mics. Joel takes a mic in his hands and starts making funny noises into it. Our dear friends laugh, knowing that Joel loves nothing better than a mic and some attention. Joel responds by stomping his feet, bringing another laugh, which he loves. We get started on the talk on God's grace. Joel pulls his hat more firmly onto his head, and says, “it’s time to go.”
Miraculously, my stress of just a few moments ago is gone. God will provide, I tell myself.
Beth, a woman who is helping to form a baking club for people in our church with special needs, comes forward and takes Joel’s hand. “Want to go for a walk?” she asks. Joel throws a relieved look at us and walks out of the sanctuary with her.
My heart burns as Wally and I finish up our talk about the grace of God.
Reflection Question: When was your last Emmaus experience? When were your eyes opened to the presence of the Lord in your walk with disability? Take some time to sit with that memory. Thank the Lord, and ask him to open the eyes of your heart to recognize Him more often.