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July 21, 2020

Stick

I don’t know how the image first entered my mind, but there it was. I saw a little boy running alongside a fence, dragging a stick along its pickets…
7 min read

I don’t know how the image first entered my mind, but there it was. I saw a little boy running alongside a fence, dragging a stick along its pickets as he passed, drawing great delight from the sound he was making. I thought that my autistic son—who loves producing repetitive noises—would enjoy doing the same the next time we could try it outside somewhere. About two weeks ago the opportunity arrived. My husband and I had decided to visit a waterway near New Haven, where the boats pass to and fro along the Quinnipiac River. There’s a small stretch of fenced walkway where people stroll or go fishing. It’s pretty low key—which is why we occasionally bring our seven-year-old there. He can run around and enjoy the sights and sounds while we can easily keep an eye on him. It’s a win-win setup. Usually.

In preparation for this particular trip, I brought the spindle from a large ring stacker set that we have at home. I chose it because it had some height and heft to it and would make a nice sound when plastic hit metal. After parking and making our way toward the water, I waited till we reached the fence where I planned to spring a pleasant surprise on my boy. Walking ahead a little, I reached for the white stick in my backpack and casually started dragging it along the pickets to demonstrate how to play the game. My son immediately ran up to me and grabbed the stick, causing my heart to lift in anticipation. I had guessed right: he was going to love this activity, and I was going to love watching him love it.

But before I could even blink an eye my son drew back his arm and promptly threw the stick right into the water. Far. Thereby ruining the beautiful, $30 toy that it belonged to. Thereby ravaging my heart for the hundredth time because my baby could not act “normal”—could not receive the gift I that had earnestly tried to give him, or at least reject it less destructively.

I tried hard to just let it go. I really did. But as we continued to proceed down the waterway in conspicuous silence, I struggled. As many parents of special needs kids do, I walked the emotional tightrope between letting go and falling into a fit of weeping or holding it together and pushing through in a numbed-out state. Neither choice feels good, let me tell you. And both threaten to cut you off from the love and affection you want to feel toward your child, your own flesh and blood, no matter what.

Soon enough we three turned around and started back toward the car. As we cleared the fenced-in area and approached the rocky shore near where we had parked, I noticed something. The stick my son had flung so hard was slowly making its way from the middle of the river to its edge, helped along by currents both natural and boat-made. As my husband and son walked ahead, I held back, heart beginning to creep back up from the black hole that had swallowed it seconds ago.

Was I seeing things right? Was the stick actually moving at the right pace in the right direction so that we might recover it quickly before my son needed to move on (he doesn’t do well with long waits)? I held my breath. Watched the white piece’s progress as it bobbed along dark depths. Finally, I called to my husband, who transferred my son to me, took off his shoes, and ventured out onto the slippery rocks that lay submerged beneath the surface. Leaning over the water, he reached out an arm and grasped the spindle in one hand. He then managed to make his way back to dry ground without falling.

Later, we were back where we had started. Child in the backseat of the car, mom and dad up front. Spindle secured in the trunk, awaiting reunion with the toy from whence it came.

But I was so not where I had started. Not by a long shot.

I felt that autism had dealt me yet another blow. In a cruel, almost casual way. As if to say: I can mess with your head—your heart—any time I want to. Because your boy is mine.

But this time God had come back with an immediate answer (they are not always so). And it was simply: not so fast. I’m working in the invisible currents, under the murky waters.

What’s “yours” is not “yours.” It’s Mine. And I reclaim it. Now.

There’s a somewhat obscure story in the Bible about another person losing something precious in a river. It is recorded in 2 Kings 4, where the protégés of the prophet Elisha are busy building lodging for themselves down by the Jordan river. The project has just gotten underway, as the men fell trees with axes. As one of them cuts into a log, the head of his axe comes loose and plunges into the water. Here’s what happens next:

And [the protégé] cried out, “Alas, my master! It was borrowed.” Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there and made the iron float. And he said, “Take it up.” So he reached out his hand and took it. (vv. 1-7)

In my mind’s eye, I see the ancient builder stretching out his hand over the river, just as I had watched my husband do the same. I see them both strain to recover something with expectations attached to it. In the builder’s case, he was (presumably) expected to return the tool undamaged to its owner after he was done using it. The Hebrew word for “borrowed,” derives from a verb that might be more literally be rendered as: “Alas, my master! It was asked.”

In my husband’s case, I think he knew that I had “borrowed” that stick from the stockpile of happier possibilities in my head that I can’t quite give up. I keep visiting that inner storeroom, as if stealing props from a movie set and “asking” them to create a scene of hope rather than heartache for our family. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I am a fighter or a fool for curating that idealized collection. I only know that I could use some help processing my emotions every time they shatter yet again. And while the Bible doesn’t necessarily erase the hurt, it so often gives me a new lens through which to view my pain so that it moves a little more towards the “plus” end of the spectrum and away from the “minus” end of it.

What I find miraculous about this Elisha account is not so much that he recovers the axe head. Elisha was already a well-established miracle worker at this time in his life. He was protégé of the mighty prophet Elijah, after all, and reputed to have been bestowed double his master’s powers. At this juncture in the text, Elisha has raised a dead boy, multiplied food for a large company (sound familiar?), purified a poisoned stew, and healed an army commander of leprosy, to name a few of his feats. To put it in modern parlance: he’s got game.

No, what rocks me on my heels is that Elisha immediately moves to correct the problem, even though he is never formally “asked” to do so. When the builder loses his tool, the first words that fly out of his mouth are a lament, not a petition. “Alas!” he cries, not “Help!” In fact, the only person to ask a question of any kind is Elisha himself, who inquires about the axe head’s location (“Where did it fall?”) prior to retrieving it.

Here’s a secret. I’m a type A personality on steroids with a perennially guilty conscience, despite the correctness of my theology. Counter to my belief that faith rather than works achieves my salvation, I pretty much live every day as if I have to earn my right not to be wiped off the face of the planet. I have to secure the blessings in my life by dint of relentless effort, avoid hardship by always maintaining control. If something goes right there’s a reason, and if something goes wrong there’s a reason. And most days those reasons don’t progress beyond a playground sense of justice, inadequate as that may be in defining the complex truth of things.

I’ve thought long and hard and am sure that I never once said, “Help,” on that fateful day by the river. I was too wrapped up in my own misery to send up anything remotely like prayer. And yet I am equally certain that God guided that renegade stick closer to the shore anyway, despite my devastated silence. Call it naiveté. Call it juvenile thinking. Over the years, I’ve been loved enduringly by enough people to know that sometimes others actually anticipate the help you need and step in, God included. Sometimes the cavalry arrives even as you’re still tallying up your losses. Sometimes “Alas!” suffices.

My husband tops the list of the long-time lovers of my soul who remind me what God is really like when it comes to remaining on my side, offering support whether or not my acts and attitude merit such assistance. I have to hand it to him for risking the treacherous rocks when it would have been so much easier—and logical—to just say, “Let’s cut our losses and go.” How much poorer would my soul have been had he taken a more practical, “grown-up” approach. How much richer I remain because of his patience and kindness.

My husband’s arm over the water reminds me of yet another’s—One who didn’t hesitate to help when his beloved had lost faith altogether. “Why did you doubt?” says Jesus, pulling Peter from the stormy sea that had that threatened to drown him (Matt 14:31). I can only imagine that this chiding was infused with a tender love as well, as if Jesus had known the whole time what his disciple was going to need. As if He knew what He was prepared to offer in the midst of the tempest, whether or not Peter’s faith was perfect.

The next time you find your heart breaking, your voice constricting, your soul fragmenting into shards of pain and unbelief, remember that your Maker views helping you as a complete no-brainer. He is perpetually planning things for you that He hopes will please and strengthen you. And when you respond to circumstances more like a maxed-out child rather than a mature believer, the story is hardly over. The wind and the waves still obey Him, causing what was lost to be found.

Of course it is always better to pray, for prayer brings us closer to the heart of God and allows Him to reach more powerfully into our lives. But when we can’t, we are still covered. Others can pray for us, which I believe is the main reason I discerned God at work by the river. (I have an email group that keeps my family tightly wrapped in the kind of intercession I just can’t muster myself in tough times.)

And when lament is all that escapes our lips, we can remember that God wants more than a formulaic, “vending machine” relationship with us. His heart yearns to be closer to us, period, no matter what kind of deficits we exhibit, or what kind of shape we are in. Who knows? God may have His own storeroom of special blessings from which He often borrows as He shapes the paths of our lives.

Because we are His. Forever.

Just like my boy is mine.