The first time I saw him he was walking on a treadmill. A blond starlet dressed like an old-west prostitute posed seductively in a country music video on the television screen suspended in front of him. But he wasn’t watching the video. He was looking around at whomever or whatever, not furtively, but with blatant curiosity.
When our eyes met, I understood.
Some might call the expression vacant. As the mother of a brain-injured son, I saw it more as open. Unmasked. He had dark eyes, and black hair curled around his ears, and I guessed he was probably somewhere between eighteen and twenty. A slender, silver-haired woman walked beside him. His mother.
The world has labels for people like him. Damaged. Deficient. Unproductive. More than anything I was struck with the stark contrast between his unaffected expression and the video starlet’s heavily painted facade, and I wondered with more than a hint of irony how many people in that gym would laugh at the notion that his contribution to society might be more valuable than hers.
The encounter touched a deep, knowing place inside me, but it was a seeing and moving along. I soon forgot.
Then, several months later, I spotted them again in an area used for free weights and upper body machines. There were plenty of other things going on around me. In addition to the general hustle and bustle of the gym, heart-breaking scenes of natural disaster filled a television screen nearby, and another screen a few feet away aired clips of a defiant dictator spewing threats. But my attention kept returning to mother and son. I didn’t mean to stare, but the more I watched them, the more everything else faded into the background. World events, whirring machines, even my own physical exertion. Soon I was completely enthralled with the interaction of the two.
The mother’s long thick hair was swept back and twisted up, the ends forming a silver firework atop her head, like a diadem. Her exercise clothes revealed a lean, gracefully athletic frame. But it didn’t take long to see in her a beauty that goes much deeper than a sculpted figure. A love story played out before me, and I had front row seats.
I watched as she helped her son lie down on a bench, placed weights in his hands, then lay on the bench next to his with her own hand weights. They turned their heads to look at each other, which gave me a clear view of his face. I could tell she was speaking, and I imagined her voice as soft, calm, soothing. She seemed the embodiment of quiet strength, peaceful authority, and regal grace. I was captivated by her, and her son appeared to be as well. He never took his eyes off of her face as they raised and lowered their weights, side-by-side, him mirroring her movements, his expression a picture of cooperative concentration.
When they finished that exercise, she helped him sit up and carried their weights back to the rack — all her movements fluid elegance, purposeful and unhurried, as though completing this work out were the only event on her agenda, and she savored the sweetness of each moment with her son. When she stepped away from him for any reason, he remained in his place, quiet and still, patience personified. Even a casual observer could see there was a lifetime of knowing between them. He had no reason to doubt her return, so he waited, fully present in his waiting.
And again, I understood.
People who’ve heard or read our story often ask me what Jacob is like today. Does he grieve what he’s lost or have goals for the future? For a long time I wasn’t sure how to answer. I’d tell them that nothing seems to upset him for long, and his default setting is happy, but — other than the mercy of God — I wasn’t sure why. Then one day when I was trying to explain Jacob to yet another person who’d asked, it all suddenly made sense.
Jacob is content because he’s fully present in whatever moment he’s living. He doesn’t mourn or regret the past, and he doesn’t anticipate the future. He lives in the now with pure, childlike faith.
I have no idea if the young man in the gym was born with his so-called deficiency or if it was a gift of God’s severe mercy like Jacob’s, but I saw in him the same restful, trusting contentment. And, perhaps even more stunning, I saw this contentment in his mother as well.
What happened next made me catch my breath. The young man sat on a weight bench, staring out at the central part of the gym. As his mother walked past to adjust a machine behind him, neither turned to look at the other, but she placed a hand on his shoulder in a gesture that was like a benediction — intimate and so full of grace and tenderness, I almost felt I should avert my eyes. But I couldn’t. I was mesmerized. Awed by beauty. And deeply convicted.
I’m ashamed to admit how often I get frustrated with Jacob’s pace or resentful of the impact his limitations place on our choices. Everything about this woman’s body language and behavior communicated not only peaceful acceptance but love, joy, and genuine gratitude. And her son responded. When she spoke, he listened and obeyed. When she placed her hands over his and guided him through the use of a weight machine, he submitted without resistance, his trusting eyes fixed on her face.
The whole scene was so beautiful, so stunning and other-worldly, I lost track of time and everything else, and when I pulled myself back to my own reality, my heart was full to brimming. A multitude of emotions swirled inside me — admiration, gratitude, inspiration, awe — but there was one feeling conspicuous in its utter absence.
Talking heads and defiant dictators still paraded across TV screens, and starlets still sold their souls for digital glory. I glanced around at harried people, squeezing in a slapdash work out before rushing off to the next pressing thing, and I wondered if anyone else in that room knew they were in the presence of true greatness.
What the world calls damaged, deficient, broken, Jesus names beloved, beautiful, redeemed. What the world would throw away as useless, He honors and exalts, making the least into teachers of compassion, possessors of radiant faith, living parables of His truth. What the world considers great, isn’t. Not in the eternal scheme of things.
Become as a child. That’s what Jesus said. Do as I have done to you. Wash one another’s feet.
I shudder to think how often I miss God’s gifts — so busy am I scrambling for significance, laboring to make myself feel good about myself. But God still gives and gives, and when I’m present in the moments of my life, I see.
I watched a mother with a silver crown serve her prince of a son, and I heard a Voice whisper.
This story is an edited re-post from the archives,
shared today because I want everyone who lives in
the Dallas area to know about an opportunity
this weekend to enjoy the presence of greatness.
People, this is going to be so much fun! If you’ve never experienced an event like this, you’re missing a big treat. In addition to viewing (and potentially purchasing) original art, and watching a talent show like nothing else imaginable, there will be food and drink, conversation and laughter. And more love than any one heart can contain.
I understand that some people feel awkward or uncomfortable around the disabled. Maybe she can’t speak or walk, or he looks different? Maybe their smiles are too quick, their hugs too exuberant, their joy too boldly emblazoned on their sleeves?
I get it. I really do. We’re socially sophisticated, and we like things tidy and predictable. And we’re busy, like those people in the gym, rushing about our days, trying to stay one step ahead of our all-important deadlines, because how else will we ever be someone in the eyes of all the other someones clawing their way to Someone-dom?
But if life with Jacob has taught me anything, it’s taught me to see greatness in a brand new way. And I’m pretty sure, when we get to heaven, we’re going to be amazed by the ones Jesus seats in the places of honor.
So, if you’re a Dallas type, come party with us Saturday night.
And if you’re lucky, you might even get your picture taken with a star.