One of the defining images of my life first announced itself when I was twenty-two. At the time I was the director of a dormitory at a major university in the Midwest. My job was to tend the dorm life of several hundred men and to scurry about the campus in response to the many urgent messages that buzzed the pager I carried on my belt. Because this was back in the Dark Ages, the pager was the size of a small house, made a noise like a jet engine each time it went off, and seemed to dominate my life in nearly every way.
One of these urgent messages came on an April morning and sent me rushing to the university’s sports complex. The message was followed by a code indicating the matter was serious – paramedics were on the way.
When I arrived, the scene was near madness. My attention was first captured by a dark-haired, attractive woman. I say she was attractive but I have to admit that this was a guess on my part, for the truth is that she was hard to see. She kept bending at the waist, covering her face with her hands, and wailing, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” at an ever-increasing volume, as though she had just discovered the presence of evil in the world. I had no sooner taken her in, when a short, balding man charged at me, his finger violently jabbing into my chest, while he yelled that I would suffer the tortures of the damned in court. “I will sue you, your mother, and this university for all you’re worth!” the man raged. To this day I’m not sure why he threatened my dear mother, but that is exactly what he did.
Just beyond the wailing woman and the jabbing man was a university security guard. I’m fairly sure that at that moment he was quietly celebrating the university policy that prevented him from dealing with the public. He stared at me blankly, yet with one eyebrow slightly raised as though to say, “It’s all yours, bubba. Let’s see what you can do.”
At the center of this bedlam was Timmy. I knew it was his name because his beanie baseball cap, his matching sweatshirt, and yes, even the socks that rose from his saddle shoes to just below his neatly pressed shorts all sported the word: Timmy. And Timmy was in trouble.
I knew that Timmy was in trouble because he was screaming as loudly as any child ever has. The source of his trouble seemed to be that his right arm had been swallowed by a candy machine. There was Timmy with his shoulder jammed up against a huge machine; from time to time, he would angrily try to pull his arm free but couldn’t. Then, too, there were those trickles of blood that were working their way down Timmy’s arm, threatening to stain the sleeve of the sweatshirt that bore his name.
It was the blood that seemed to incite the aggrieved cries of the woman, who, I soon understood, was Timmy’s mother. She would point at the blood, return her hands to her face, wail with the grief of the ages, and commence bending at the waist. The man, of course, was Timmy’s father, and in the time-honored manner of men, he expressed his concern for his son by finding another man and threatening him. The man he chose was me.
As a well-trained college dorm director, I had absolutely no idea what to do. Still, taking stock of the four people in front of me, I decided my best chance was with Timmy. I walked over to him, ran my hand up his arm into the candy machine to determine what was really happening, and tried to be comforting.
It was then that I noticed it. Timmy’s arm was taut in a way that suggested perhaps he really wasn’t stuck after all. By then the paramedics had arrived, but I waved them off.
I stepped back from the screaming boy, looked him firmly in the eye and said, “Son, let go of the candy bar.” The mother stopped her wailing. The father backed away from my right ear, in which he had been screaming for several deafening minutes. The paramedics and the security guard looked at me as though I had just denied Christ on the cross. Everyone went silent, waiting to see what would happen next.
And Timmy, mercifully quiet for the first time, pulled his hand out of that machine.
I can picture an adult Timmy years later telling a crowd at a cocktail party how that machine walked across the room, sucked in his arm, and wouldn’t let go. But it didn’t happen that way. All of that commotion and fear, all of that screaming and rage, was because Timmy had a death grip on a Snickers bar.
I cannot tell you exactly why, but God has brought that image back to me again and again throughout my life. Maybe because that screaming boy – the one who threw everyone into turmoil because he refused to let go – has often been me. When I have had my season of darkness in my otherwise blessed life, God has used Timmy to remind me that nothing can keep my soul in bondage except the forbidden or unclean thing I insist on holding tight.
It is an image that has served me well. When life has bled me dry or friends have failed me or I have fouled my nest through my own folly, I remember that better days always lie ahead if only I will loosen my Timmy Death Grip on what I should have left alone in the first place: my offenses, my bitterness, my need for revenge, my anger, my self-pity, my pride.
Excerpted from Healing Your Church Hurt by Stephen Mansfield. Copyright ©2010 by Stephen Mansfield. Published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Used with permission. Watch Stephen Mansfield this Monday on LIFE Today.