Really, it was a small thing. Just a silly text message.
My son Jack, who has autism, is a child of routines. He wants to know what’s happening so he can know what’s happening next. Over the past month or so, he has added something to his Sunday routine. He’s started watching football games with me.
I’ve told the story many times of Jack’s birth and my expectations: how Sara went into labor right in the middle of the Super Bowl XL in 2006, and how I took it as an omen about our life together; how I thought he would share in my passions for sports, books, and deep discussions over strong coffee; and how those cliché fantasies imploded when Jack’s regression hit. Autism required me to re-calibrate all my visions of fatherhood. I eventually came to accept the fact that life with Jack would not include all the staples of my own family culture, but it took years to get there.
Then, on Sunday, I got a text from my daughter who had already come home from church with her brothers. “Jack’s asking for football,” she said.
Truly, it was a small thing.
But something else happened last weekend. Uncle George came to town for Thanksgiving, and he had big things to share.
I’ve told a little of George’s story before, too: how we had worked together for years with him and his precious wife Karen; how Karen beat cancer twice, but couldn’t beat it a third time. How we mourned with him, and drew closer.
Before Karen’s premature death (she was just thirty-three), the two of them had been traveling the country, planning and raising funds to start an AIDS orphanage in George’s homeland of Papua New Guinea. HIV had been ravaging his nation for years, and they wanted to do something about it. The two of them decided they would go together. It was a bold dream.
Then came the wheelchair, the seizure, the blurry days in intensive care, and she was gone.
It’s been eight years.
You would expect that the old dream must have lain dormant without Karen helping to carry it. And maybe it did for a time. But not for long.
On Sunday, the same morning I got the text message from my daughter, I watched my old friend George standing before hundreds of people, telling the tale of his young and growing ministry. It is happening. He is doing it. He told our congregation about the tragedies in Papua New Guinea–of families turning out their HIV positive daughters, and of scared teenage mothers selling their newborn children on the hospital steps. And he told us about the hope he’s planting right in the middle of the mess–of children rescued and mothers finding warm hands to care for them.
Here was the best part, though. While George talked, his new wife Crystal sat beside him. Their adopted baby–himself a child of an HIV positive birth mother–was laughing in her arms, and Karen’s own diamond sparkled boldly from her wedding ring. Theirs is a staggeringly beautiful tale. Both of them know they are living a redemption story. It’s one of the best I’ve ever heard. Not only was love and joy reborn in George’s heart, his dream, too, came back from the ashes.
As I watched my two friends on stage, I wondered whether any of our young, untested dreams are good for anything until they are first ruined. All of us have visions when we are young. We think we’ll sail with dragons and live in castles and save the world through our heroism. Then the harsh winter comes. The dark night steps on our souls, and we realize we’re not as strong as we expected to be.
And as devastating as that can be, I’ve also found hope in such breakings.
For it is right there, in the aftermath of a shattered vision, that God meets us again. There, we find the shards of stubbornness to accomplish real good in the world. When the flame is on the verge of burning itself out, we often find the enduring embers of faithfulness. Young dreams come and go, but the dream of one who hoped, then lost, then hoped again? There is power in that one. Not only is his resolve like steal, but his dream itself is better than it used to be.
Big redemption stories like George’s inspire me, even in the midst of my tiny, insignificant one.
When I came home on Sunday, I did what my son asked. I turned on the football game and stretched out on the couch. Then, Jack grabbed his blanket and curled up next to me. We stayed like that for hours. I sighed in gratitude.
G.K. Chesterton defined gratitude as “happiness doubled by wonder.” That’s what I feel this week. Doubled by wonders great and small. Bowled over by the generosity of heaven.
I have no idea if Jack understands sports, or if we will ever discuss the works of C.S. Lewis together. He doesn’t say anything when he watches football with me. He won’t cheer or boo, or comment on how great Tony Romo is in the booth. I used to think I wanted those things most of all, but that was the old, untested vision. That was before the breaking.
And maybe it’s all hindsight now, but I think this is what I was really dreaming for all along: to be next to my son; to pull him close and share the warm and sprawling stillness of family.
To find out more about George & Crystal’s ministry, watch this video, and visit iCare4U’s website.
(Special thanks to Tami Jenkins of Hot Flash Photography, as well as my kids Sam and Emily for the pics.)