It is a beautiful thing when we experience an encounter of the divine kind and can celebrate that the Creator of the Universe is going ahead of us, smoothing the way before us. We are told in Deuteronomy 31:8: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.” (NIV) Personally go ahead of you…
In October 2012, I got to witness God doing this very thing. I was in a dark place. A friend of mine had posted hurtful things about me on social media, and I was still reeling from the event. I got the kids off to school and then sought refuge under the covers.
As soon as I had successfully burrowed into my man-made blanket burrito, my cell phone rang. It was the first-grade teacher at my kids’ school. What does she want? I groaned. I picked up the phone worried it might be regarding my boys. It wasn’t.
She wanted to know if I would come in and assist a troubled boy named Joey for a day or two as the principal had been helping him and was going to be away. I can’t, I thought, my eyes are swollen from crying, and I am completely drained. But I couldn’t say no.
Something about troubled children tugs at my heartstrings. God knew, of course, that I wouldn’t be able to resist, maybe the only thing that could have dragged me away from my pre-planned pity party that morning.
My job was simply to follow Joey around and make sure he didn’t injure another student or himself. Days before, he had pulled over a large bookshelf, spilling its contents all over the classroom. He was erratic and disruptive. I prepared for the worst.
When I entered the classroom, it was immediately apparent which child was mine. As the other students were sitting at their desks quietly completing a math worksheet, Joey was standing up mumbling to himself and flying a pencil around like it was an airplane. He glanced up at me as if he knew I was coming for him.
I pulled up a chair beside him, and he shot me a mischievous grin. He didn’t seem to mind the intrusion but rather seemed enticed by the one-on-one attention. The teacher made an announcement: “I need everybody to check their desks for library books. It is time to return them and choose new ones. I’ll give you a minute to look.”
I wondered if Joey had the mental capacity to follow these simple directions, and right away, I saw that he did. He reached his hand into the back of his desk toppling an assortment of worksheets, erasers, and some broken crayons onto the floor. While he rummaged through the contents of his desk with one hand, he smiled and pointed inside the desk with the other hand.
Unearthing a small paperback book, he pulled it out just far enough that I could catch a glimpse of its title. Satisfied, he shoved the book to the back of his desk where he’d found it, careful to disguise it with a bunch of papers and cut up construction paper he found on the floor nearby.
“I’m gonna keep it,” he whispered, “because it’s about sharks and I love sharks and this is the only book about sharks.” “The only one in the whole classroom?” I asked. “Yep,” he said, excited to let me in on his little secret.
He was so stinking cute, I didn’t have the heart to lecture him and demand that he put the book back in the return pile so that other students could have the chance to celebrate the world of sharks too. I figured God would overlook our teensy transgression. Besides, I was only here for a short time.
As we went through the day’s routine, I got to know my new little friend. I was expecting stories about action heroes or silly pranks he wanted to play on the teacher or his unsuspecting classmates. Instead, Joey told me that he would really like a picture of Jesus for his bedroom. He also informed me that he wanted a picture of Jesus that says “I love you” that his dad could hang over his tv set.
In between requests for pictures of Jesus, he entertained me with a plethora of fun facts about sharks. We even hunted for shark books together on a class trip to the library but came up empty-handed. Good thing he’d hung onto the only classroom copy, I thought.
Eventually, it was time for the class to head outside for recess. I stood back and watched Joey swing on the swings and barrel down the slide. He mostly kept to himself and besides throwing a few playground rocks, he didn’t cause any trouble. So far so good, I thought. Soon the class headed back inside and at 2:50, the bell rang signaling the end of our first 8 hours together.
The following day, I returned and Joey was elated to see me. He had become my little buddy. I was thoroughly enjoying my time with him. The day carried on much like it did the day before, but he had a new request for me. This time, he told me he wanted a picture of Mary for his dad’s bedroom. That’s nice, I told him. Then right back to sharks.
Joey enjoyed recess much as he had the day before, but when the bell rang, announcing that it was time to line up, Joey refused to follow his classmates. I gently tried to coax him but to no avail. It was as if the sweet little boy I had been with for the past two days was gone, the mischievous twinkle in his eyes replaced with a dull vacancy. I said, “C’mon, Joey, it’s me, let’s go,” but he didn’t budge. Instead, he stared blankly ahead kicking the chain link fence repeatedly with his muddy shoe.
I looked back at the principal who then took a turn encouraging Joey to return to the classroom. Joey glanced around to see that we were the only ones left outside, but continued to kick the fence. He was in his own world now and nothing we said penetrated his walls. “I’m calling your dad, Joey, to come and take you from school if you don’t come inside now.”
With that, he darted towards the school door. The principal opened the door and he ran through it, but instead of making his way back to the classroom, he shot up the stairs to the middle school area. I ran up one set of stairs while the principal took the other. Eventually, we had him corned, and realizing he was trapped, he slid down to the floor, his back slumped against the wall.
“Ok, thank you, I’m sorry,” the principal told Joey’s dad as she hung up the phone. I took a seat next to Joey on the floor, and we sat quietly for a few minutes. I tried to engage him but my words seemed to bounce off of the invisible barrier between us.
The magical connection we’d shared for the past day and a half was gone. The principal told me I should go on home, that his dad would be there any minute to get him. Heartbroken, I headed to my car.
I had a sinking feeling that Joey would not be at our school much longer. Saddened, I set out to find a picture of Jesus that I could give to him before I lost track of him forever. I had no idea where to look for such a thing so I headed to Goodwill.
I waltzed to the back and there on the shelf was a brand new picture of Jesus for only $1.00, still in its plastic wrap, and it was one that I liked. I smiled, thanked God, and put it in my cart. The next thing that caught my eye was a stuffed animal shark, brand new, still with the tags on, and I snatched it as well.
When I got home, I placed the items in a gift bag and delivered them to the school the following morning. Crushed when I learned Joey would not be returning, I asked the principal if she would pass along my gift.
The dad could decide if the gifts were appropriate. I had no idea how he would feel about them. I just felt called to make the gesture. The principal delivered them to his dad the following day and said he was moved by the act of kindness.
Joey left our school for one that could accommodate his special needs, but I will never forget him or the picture of Jesus and the stuffed shark that God left for me in Goodwill that day. I was told that after I left the day before, Joey asked about me.
“Where is that lady?” he asked. “The one who was helping you do school?” the principal answered. “Yes,” he nodded. “She had to go home because you refused to do school.” He looked up at her, quiet for a second, and then buried his face in his hands and began to cry.
Joey may have believed that I was sent to the school to save him, but what he couldn’t have understood was that he was saving me too. God knew that assisting troubled children was one of my passions, and He knew that was the one thing He could request of me that would drag me out of bed and out of my funk.
I am still in awe as I recall this enchanted encounter and the unique ways we were able to minister to one another. I have no idea of Joey’s whereabouts, but he will never be forgotten. He provided concrete evidence of my Heavenly Father providing for me—bringing me exactly what I needed at the exact moment I needed it.
Isaiah 43:19 states: ” I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (NIV) God knew that I needed help, that my spirit was crushed, and He did what only God can do—He made a way for me. He orchestrated a brief encounter with a little 1st-grade angel named Joey.
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalms 34:18 (NIV)