A cryptic dream left him grasping for reasons to believe he would one day walk again.
- Posted on Nov 25, 2014
The answer must be in the Bible, Joel Haler’s father told him. Of course, the minister’s son was used to that response—he’d heard it often in his 20 years, though what he read didn’t always make sense to him.
Still, Joel rolled his wheelchair up to the kitchen table and flipped the pages of his Bible to the Book of Job. Chapter 23: “Then Job answered: ‘Today also my complaint is bitter, his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning....’”
Joel read the chapter through twice, considering every word. A bitter complaint? He knew all about that. Yet it wasn’t the answer he was seeking.
His father urged him to keep looking, searching for the meaning of the message Joel believed he’d been sent. The mysterious code that seemed to offer Joel the promise of walking again: J23.
It was January 2014, three months since a freak accident in a college gym class left Joel paralyzed below the waist. For three months he’d hoped for a miracle. Every week at his father’s church, members of the congregation told Joel that they were praying for him.
Still, nothing had changed. He’d been to four different hospitals, seen specialists, had all kinds of tests: MRIs. Spinal taps. The doctors offered no hope that he would walk again.
Ever since he was a little boy, his father had told him that God had a plan. But was it God’s plan for him to spend his life in a wheelchair? Or was life just random?
Then came the dream. Joel was inside the Fieldhouse in New Castle, Indiana, the biggest high school basketball arena in the country, where he had once played for the New Castle Trojans.
That night the place was rocking, the fans—9,000 strong—stomping and clapping like this was the state championship game. Joel, surrounded by teammates, ran through the entrance tunnel to the court. A giant paper banner covered the opening.
Suddenly his perspective changed. He was inside the gym, staring directly at the banner. It was stark white, printed with a letter and number. J23. Joel saw it for only a second before the Trojans burst through it.
Joel’s eyes flew open. He was lying in bed, in the dark. He tried again to move his legs. Nothing. J23? What was that supposed to mean?
The answer wasn’t in the Book of Job. Joel turned to Jeremiah, but that was no help either. Neither was chapter 23 in Joshua. Those were the only J books with 23 chapters.
“This is pointless!” Joel closed the Bible with a thud and pushed away from the table.
In the days that followed, Joel looked elsewhere. The crossword puzzle. Google. License plates. Nothing. Maybe J23 had no meaning. Maybe it was just something random, like life.
That Sunday at the end of the church service, one of the children, a four-year-old boy, came up to Joel, who was sitting in his wheelchair at the back of the congregation.
“You’re going to walk on a Thursday,” the boy announced, his voice filled with youthful confidence.
The boy’s mother looked on uncertainly. Three months earlier, she explained, her son had told her that God had given him a message to share with Joel. She’d dismissed it, but he had insisted.
First J23, now this. Joel and his family puzzled over the boy’s prediction. Which Thursday? Were Joel’s dream and the boy’s message connected?
At home, Joel asked his dad to get the calendar. They opened it to June. The twenty-third was a Monday. July 23 was a Wednesday.
“What about January?” his dad asked.
Joel flipped back to the first page. January 23 was a Thursday—four days away. Impossible. After three months in a wheelchair, his legs were so atrophied he would need months of physical therapy.
He had only just begun sessions strapped into a robotic harness that moved his legs. He was nowhere near strong enough to stand, much less walk.
Wednesday night arrived. Joel couldn’t sleep. There was nothing he could do but wait.
Midnight came. January 23 began. Joel’s legs were still dead weight. An hour passed. Then two more. Joel stared down at his paralyzed limbs. It was hopeless. He dropped his head into his hands.
He barely felt it at first. Like a feather stroking his ankle. Ever so slowly the feeling spread up his legs, growing into an intense pain. He couldn’t take it. He wiggled his toes. Then pinched his arm to make sure...no, he was definitely awake.
He swung his legs off the bed. He could bend his knees! Cautiously, he lowered his feet to the floor and stood. He took a step. Then another. He didn’t stumble.
Outside his parents’ room he called out, “Mom! Dad! Look!”
A rocket ship couldn’t have propelled the Halers out of bed any faster. “You’re walking! You’re walking!” they said over and over. Joel didn’t need to worry about falling. His parents had never hugged him tighter.
There was no medical explanation. Perhaps swelling from his injury had subsided, and any damage to his spinal cord had been minor. But that wouldn’t explain him walking after three months in a wheelchair.
Nothing could account for it. Except J23.
Today, Joel visits churches around the country, sharing an experience he himself cannot completely explain. Not a verse in the Bible, but a glimpse of a plan. Not randomness, but goodness.
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