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      Coincidences or God-incidences by Philip Yancey

 

All the passages below are taken from Philip Yancey’s book “Grace Notes---Daily Readings with a Fellow Pilgrim,” published in 2009.

 

The last weekend of February 2007, I spoke at a historic church in Los Alamos, New Mexico. When I spoke to the community on the subject of prayer that evening, I related some of my mountain-climbing adventures. For instance, on the day my wife and I summitted Mt. Wilson we were still well above the safety of timberline when dark clouds moved in. Lightning struck closer and closer. "What do we do?" I asked our experienced companion.

"There's really not much you can do," he replied. "The granite rock conducts electricity. I'd recommend separating by at least a hundred yards or so---that way if one of us gets hit, another can go for help. And squat down with your feet together to make yourself as small a target as possible."

My wife and I looked at each other. Finally I shrugged and said, "Honey, we've had a good life. Let's go together." We ditched our buzzing hiking poles and squatted down, as our friend suggested, but side by side, holding hands. For the next hour we got pummeled by rain, hail, sleet, snow, and a mixture of all at once, all the while counting the seconds between each lightning bolt that sizzled around us and the blast of thunder that followed.

"I learned an important life lesson," I told the folks who had gathered in the United Church. "I am not in control. I must tell you, as a freelance writer I'm something of a control freak. I have to be. Since I have no boss telling me what to do, I have to organize my own life, and most of the time I go around feeling like I'm in control. As I learned atop Mt. Wilson, that's an illusion."

I went on to say that this mountain-climbing lesson actually applies all the time. "Even when I think I'm in control, I'm not. I could die of a heart attack right in front of you before finishing this sentence." Some in the audience laughed nervously. "Or I could have an auto accident driving back to Denver tomorrow---probably far more likely than getting hit by lightning on Mt. Wilson." More laughter.

How eerily prophetic those words would prove to be.

Sunday morning, driving back from Los Alamos to Denver, I turned down a small, remote road just over the Colorado border, more for variety in scenery than anything else. Snow had fallen a few days before, and several times I was surprised by patches of ice on the road. Suddenly, as I headed downhill into one curve, my Ford Explorer began to fishtail. I fought it until the right rear tire slipped off the pavement and grabbed soft dirt. Then the Explorer rolled sideways, over and over, five times in all.

The noise was deafening, a crescendo of glass, plastic, and metal breaking all at once. Every window shattered, spilling skis, boots, ice skates, my laptop computer, and luggage across the Colorado countryside.

Finally the rolling stopped, with the vehicle in an upright position. I turned off the ignition, unbuckled my seatbelt, and ducked under the collapsed roof to stumble to the ground. My nose was bleeding, I had cuts on my face, legs, and arms, and I felt a searing pain in my upper back, just below the neck. My be­longings were strewn over a hundred feet, and I wandered the desert landscape searching for my laptop and cell phone.

A few minutes later a car pulled over. A well-dressed couple got out, ran to the scene, and started giving orders. They were both certified Emergency Medical Technicians, and the husband headed up the ambulance corps for the county. They led me to their car, called for an ambulance, and sat beside me holding my head in a fixed position. "How did you happen to come down this remote road early on a Sunday morning?" I asked after they had stabilized my neck.

"We're Mormons," the woman replied. "We've just started a mission church in the tiny town of San Luis, and we're driving over to help them get on their feet."

Thus began one of the longest, most memorable days of my life. When the ambulance came, attendants strapped me into a rigid body board, taping my head still and immobilizing it with a neck brace. We drove almost an hour to reach the town of Alamosa, where I was transferred with much jostling and bumping onto a gurney and into a hospital emergency room.

For two hours I lay in a most uncomfortable position on the body board, awaiting results from CAT scans. Then the doctor came in. "There's no easy way to say this, Mr. Yancey ..." I had a broken neck, specifically the C-3 vertebra in a "comminuted" or pulverized fashion. The good news was that the break did not occur in the spinal cord channel itself. If it had, I would likely have ended up paralyzed like Christopher Reeve. The bad news was that a bone fragment may well have nicked a major artery.

"We have a jet standing by if needed to airlift you to Denver for surgery," the doctor explained. "We'll do another CAT scan, this time with an iodine dye solution to reveal any possible leakage from the artery. I must emphasize, this is a life-threatening situation. You may want to contact your loved ones."

In all, I lay strapped onto that body board for seven hours that day, plenty of time to think through my life. I've written articles on people whose lives have been instantly changed by an accident that left them paraplegic or quadriplegic. I had narrowly missed that fate. But if my artery was leaking, an artery that feeds the brain, or if it formed a blood clot, well, I soon faced a fate worse than paralysis.

As I lay there, contemplating what I had just been teaching in Los Alamos about prayer, and facing for the first time the imminent possibility of death, I felt surprisingly peaceful. I reflected on what a wonderful life I have had, with a life-giving marriage partner, adventures in more than fifty countries, work that allows me both meaning and near-total freedom, and connections through my writing with people I've never met.

I looked back on my life and felt little regret. And as I thought of what may await me, I felt deep trust. Although no one raised in the kind of church environment I grew up in totally leaves behind the acrid smell of fire and brimstone, I had an overwhelming sense of trust in God. I have come to know a God of compassion and mercy and love.

As it happened, thank God---oh, yes, thank God---the results turned out far better than I could have hoped. The scans revealed no arterial leakage. The hospital released me within an hour of my wife's arrival, fitted with a stiff neck brace that kept my head from moving for the next twelve weeks. After several months of physical therapy, the fractures healed, and I am left only with some residual soreness and vertebrae that are slightly misaligned. I may need surgery for spinal fusion sometime later, but in almost every way I have resumed normal life.

Looking back now, I see many coincidences---God-incidences?---that contributed to a good outcome. The EMT trained Mormons traveling that route early on a Sunday morning. The most experienced X-ray technician, normally off-duty on weekends, filling in for a sick colleague. The emergency room doctor, a star graduate of an elite medical school, returning to his small Colorado town to be of service. And, most of all, the injury itself, serious but not nearly is catastrophic as the alternatives.

I now look back on that long day, spent strapped to a body board in an ambulance and then emergency room, as a unique gift. All of us will face death, some through a long degenerative illness like cancer and others through an abrupt accident. I had something in between, a window of time in which I lay suspended between life and nonlife, with the very real possibility of death within a few minutes or hours and yet an opportunity to emerge with overwhelming good news and another chance at life.

I hope that I never forget that window of time or what I saw through it. For a few weeks after the accident I walked around in a "daze of grace," looking at the sky, trees, grass, my wife, my friends, with newly washed eyes. Even as my battered body brought new aches and pains to my attention, life held surprises around every corner, fresh promptings to gratitude and joy. Each day I awoke with a profound sense of gratitude for the simplest things: birds flitting from tree to tree, the sound of a creek flowing around rocks and ice near our home, the ability to move a finger, to dress myself.

Word of the accident got out, and over the next few months I was overwhelmed by support from friends, family, and people I have never met. In the act of writing I spill something of my soul onto the printed page, and through the cards and letters that came in I realized a remarkable link can forge even with strangers. One person wrote me that Quakers have a phrase they were exercising on my behalf: "holding you in the light." I felt held, truly.

My wife, while working as a hospice chaplain, observed a striking difference in the way that believers and unbelievers face death. Both feel fear and pain and grief. But Christians have an almost palpable contribution in the mysterious linkage that comes through prayer. It's the difference between a hospice visitor saying "I will pray for you---honest, every day," and someone saying, "Good luck. Best wishes."

Recently, a spate of authors have been trumpeting a kind of triumphalist atheism. I can understand why someone would choose atheism, but I cannot understand why such a stance might seem like good news, something worth trumpeting. Lying helpless, strapped to a body board, I would have felt utterly and inconsolably alone, except for my faith that I lay in the hands of a God who loves me and promises a future beyond death.

I am trying to keep before me the crystalline vision I had while lying strapped down for seven hours. I have learned how thin is the thread that separates life from nonlife, and how comforting is the knowledge that I am not alone on this journey. I have learned these things in a way that I doubt I will ever forget. What we spend so much time and energy on (finances, image, achievement) matters so little in the face of imminent death.

What matters reduces down to a few basic questions. Who do I love? Who will I miss? How have I spent my life? Am I ready for what's next? The challenge is, How do I keep those questions in the forefront as I come to my desk each day and face piles of paper and blinking electronic messages? [78-82]

 

Trip notes, later included in some editions of Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?

 

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