Sunday, July 31, 2016

Life and Death

I don't remember the accident. It's odd because it only took a few seconds and it made a huge change in my life. In less time than this sentence will take, I broke both wrists, my left femur or thigh bone, the tibia and fibula in my right lower leg, my right heel, my sternum or breastbone, and 6 ribs, and I tore my diaphragm, my sigmoid colon, and my greater omentum and punctured my pancreas. That's for starters.

I do remember the aftermath. I woke to a first responder asking my name, what year it was and who was president. As I looked around dazed and noted that my airbags were deflated, I realized I must have had an accident and the nursing part of my brain recognized the questions and realized there were trying to assess my orientation to person, place and time. My legs felt as if they were dangling from strings rather like a marionette's. Apparently the engine of my car pushed the firewall back into my legs. When a deputy put his hands around my neck and cradled my head, my nurse's training told me they were about to put a cervical collar on me. Someone in a passing car snapped a picture and sent it to my wife's boss, who sent it to Julie, so that very moment has been captured. I remember it from my point of view and can see what it looked like from the outside. Weird.

I remember being cut out of the car and being pulled out and laid on a backboard. It was during my extraction from the vehicle that the pain finally kicked in. As they carried me to the emergency vehicle I remember saying “Ow” or “Oh, God” with every jolt. I remember being loaded on the helicopter but nothing further. That's when my right lung collapsed. They had to do an emergency thoracotomy me and insert a chest tube to reinflate my lung before they could take off and fly me to the trauma center in Miami.

I have one other memory of that day. It is an audio memory. I couldn't open my eyes and I had been intubated so I couldn't speak. But Julie confirms that it happened. She was sitting by me in the emergency room. Because she works for 911, she knew all the deputies, EMTs and first responders who had worked on me. And she was saying that she would have to make a lot of cookies to thank them. And then I heard the soft British voice of my brand new bishop say, “You don't happen to have any in the car, do you?” It was Bishop Peter Eaton's way of keeping things light. I remember nothing else. I was taken into the OR for the first of my 5 surgeries and was kept in a chemically induced coma for the better part of a week.

“You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.”

That's the climax of the parable Jesus tells in today's passage from Luke 12. After a guy in the crowd asks Christ to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him, Jesus asks who appointed him as the arbitrator over his estate. Then he tells the story of a rich man who ends up with a bumper crop. He plans to tear down his existing barns and build bigger ones so he can store all the excess. Then the man decides to kick back and enjoy himself because he's got it made. That's when God pulls him up short and tells him that he won't get the benefit of his labor. Jesus is re-enforcing the point made in Ecclesiastes 2. He who dies with the most toys does notwin. Someone else will get to play with those toys. Our lives do not consist of having lots of possessions. When death comes, they prove to be useless. Jesus concludes, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

That's an odd phrase: “rich toward God.” But the sentence structure implies it is the opposite of storing up treasures for oneself. It could mean the rich guy should have given some of his wealth to God by contributing to the temple. But I think Jesus may be referring to Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” Just 2 chapters later in Luke, Jesus says, “...when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:13,14) After all, the excess the man had was grain—food. Rather than build new silos, he could have helped out a lot of hungry people. But he was just going to sit on it and sell it off a bit at a time while he would just, in his own words, “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Wrong! His last act could have been one of generosity and charity. Instead he was thinking only of himself when death came.

Such sayings by Jesus and in the rest of the Bible make us uneasy. We like having stuff. I think it goes back to childhood when we had a favorite doll or toy or blanket that we took everywhere. It was tangible and it made us feel we had a grip on this world, something to hang onto if the rug was pulled from under us. But it wouldn't help.

Any of those memories could have been my last. Or none of them. One moment I was driving home from a beautiful service at the cathedral, listening to a podcast, crossing over the last bridge to Big Pine, 2 miles from home. The next moment my car was careening across the highway and I was unconscious, my internal organs being shredded like paper, the bones of my body being snapped like so many twigs. And that could have been it. I may never have awakened in this world.

A lot of people don't. Just this last Monday 2 people were killed less than 10 miles from where I crashed. Julie witnessed the accident. She took her first aid kit to one vehicle. But it was too late for them. And the other car was a white Altima, like mine. The next day she discovered she knew one of the people who died. She took a day off.

Death is the fairest thing there is: one per customer. But we never know exactly when it will come. It may be an the end of a long illness; it may be a sudden accident or stroke or heart attack. It may be as the result of violence. We really don't like to think about our death. But it is coming. The question is not “will we die” nor “how?” It is “how will we live?”

Every day we get is a gift and grace from God. Every second is a second chance to start living our lives differently. If we look at things that way, if we are grateful for what we have been given—the people in our lives, our talents, the opportunities, the challenges, and all the things in life that cost nothing—we will have a better life than if we invest in mere physical stuff. Scientists have even found that people are happier when they spend their money on experiences rather than possessions. And they have verified that Jesus was on the nose when he said it is more blessed to give than to receive. Science concurs: doing things for others makes us happier than doing things just for ourselves.

And that makes sense. If God is love and we are created in the image of God, we are more true to ourselves, to our real natures, when we love and do things out of love for others. When I awoke from my coma, it was to find Julie holding my right hand and my daughter Beth holding my left. When I could do nothing for myself, I was supported by many many others. Besides the nurses and doctors and therapists, there was my family, my parishioners, the officers and inmates at the jail, people from other churches to whom I was just a name on a prayer list. People prayed for me and had faith that I would be healed and cheered me along every step of the way. You carried me like the 4 friends who carried the paralytic on a mat, and tore up somebody's roof and lowered the man through the hole to Jesus. My call from God and my love for these people lit a fire under me and motivated me to do what had to be done no matter how difficult and painful. I did so to the astonishment of doctors and nurses and therapists, who called me the miracle man, in part because people this broken usually give up. This call and this love is motivating me right now to make my way tomorrow to Miami and get from the doctor a note that will allow me to do here from a chair what I did in the nursing home from a wheelchair every week since Holy Week: lead worship of the God who healed me.

Our life is required of us every day. Jesus gave his life for us. Which means our lives are not our own. They come from God and were redeemed—bought back—by Jesus. And when the day of resurrection comes, we will be like him, embodiments of God's love. As Paul put it, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful and painful reflection. Thank you!