This is chapter five in the book “A Life Unplugged”; for previous chapters, click the links at the bottom of this post.
Part One, Chapter Five: The Miracle of Nothingness
I heard the ambulance come and overheard the paramedics talking about the impossibility and futility of trying to take me to the hospital. The sound of the helicopter blades was deafening, and I could feel the wind rushing around my face. I felt like I was in a dream; I wasn’t scared and I was somehow peaceful. I became very sleepy and decided it was time to meet my Maker, so I decided to close my eyes.
“Sir, you cannot close your eyes…sir! Look at me! Don’t close your eyes!”
“I am very tired, and I just want to sleep.”
“Sir, do not close your eyes…stay with me.”
“Who are you?”
“I am a friend trying to save your life…now keep your eyes open.”
I realized that the reason he was yelling was that we were in flight and the cabin of the helicopter was very loud. I obeyed this man. Although, I thought it would be nice not to have my life saved; I was tired of me, tired of life, tired of fighting a losing battle, and I was ready to put it all down. The doors of the helicopter were swung open in a rush; I was jerked out of the bird in a flurry of voices and shouts and the clanging of the wheels of the stretcher on the concrete. A different man was telling me the same thing, “Stay with us…keep looking at me.” In retrospect it was an exercise in complete efficiency: the way they cut through my jeans, cleaned my wounds, hooked up the I.V., stitched me up, stapled my head, and all the while talking to me like they really cared whether I lived or not. I will never have the proper words to express my gratitude to these men and women who saved my pathetic life.
The next morning, I awoke in pain beyond words. I groaned as I tried to move. A nurse, that might as well have been an angel, came to my side and softly asked me if I was in pain. She asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the pain?” I simply looked at her and smiled as if to reply, “What do you think?” She nodded and smiled back. It didn’t take long for the morphine drip to kick in, and I felt better. A few hours later, I told her I wanted to stand and look in the mirror to see what damage I had done to myself. She said it was a bad idea, but I insisted. She said I was a persistent cuss.
The nurse, whom I love now for her kindness and her appreciation of my being a “persistent cuss”, assisted me on my left side as I limped over to the mirror. Half my face was destroyed; it was like a Phantom of the Opera mask. I was unrecognizable and looked like I should be dead. The nurse said nothing; she just helped me over to the hospital bed and asked me if I were thirsty. Upon handing me some ice, she said I was a miracle. I looked at her in astonishment and said, “I certainly don’t feel like a miracle.”
“Very few people survive a vehicle ejection. The doctors thought you wouldn’t make it.”
“Nice to know they were so optimistic.”
She chuckled and gently reflected, “I know you must have a guardian angel. When they told me the circumstances of your accident, I just knew that you had divine protection. I have been a nurse for a very long time, and your odds were not very good.”
“Well, I guess I was lucky.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it.”
As the nurse left my side, all the pain returned. Physically, I was anesthetized; emotionally, I was still the same person. I lay on my back with the reality of the situation seeping into me; the storm surge of the hurricane had begun to flood the remains of what the wind had left behind.
In the final assessment, after x-rays and exams and poking and probing, I had somehow come out the other side of this with no broken bones, no contusions, and no internal bleeding. The doctor basically said the same thing as the nurse, mainly, that it was next to impossible to have not sustained at least some internal damage or broken bones. I did however, lose a substantial amount of blood, almost bled out, had to have 20 staples to put my scalp back on, had “road rash” from my ankles to my hip, and my lower back had been compressed. They sent me home 3 days later with pain medication.
One would think that this near-death experience would have made me appreciate life more, but that was not the case! A month after the accident, while nursing myself back to health, the phone rang late on a Saturday night. It was my brother on the other line telling me that dad was about to die. He held the phone to dad’s ear and I told him I loved him; dad wheezed and labored a breathy, “I love you son.” I began to fall deeper into despair and physically collapsed on the floor as I held onto my wife’s knees, crying like a wounded dog. Fifteen minutes later, my brother called back to say it was over. Neither of us had anything to say. I spoke at the funeral, but lacked the profundity to say anything worthwhile.
I continued on this course of self-destruction. I had been arrested for several incidents. I had accumulated several DUI charges, a few public intoxication charges, a probation sentence, a couple of short stints in jail, a violation of probation charge, a failure to appear charge, and finally a resisting arrest charge that was the tipping point. The bounty hunter picked me up late one morning on a muggy, summer’s day. As I sat in the squad car, I had completely gone numb. This numbness is beyond description; if you have been there, you know of what I speak; if you have not been there, it would be impossible to describe. This was my life, this was the road to brokenness, and this was the point where I went into survival mode. The only thing worse than hating life, is hating life while locked up!
As I give my testimony these days, I always use this phrase to describe this time in my life: “It was the worst/best time of my life.” I sobered up in jail, but what surprised me was just how long it took me to have a sane thought! I had been mixing opiates (a habit I acquired while rehabilitating after the accident) with alcohol, and this proved to be a potent way to lose one’s mind. After about 3 months behind bars, I started to really feel the pain. I had spent so much time and effort numbing the pain that it took that long for the pain to really return. If I thought that life on the outside was hard, life on the inside was ten times harder. But at least I was sober. I began to realize that I just might have an addiction problem…imagine that! One day after being locked up for 4 months, I promised my wife that I would not return home (or what was left of what I called home) without first going to a rehab center. I gave my word.
I was transferred from one jail to another jail a week before Christmas after serving 6 months. The new facility that I was whisked off to is still considered to be one of the nastier jails around. I spent the next 31/2 months locked up in a cell for 23 hours a day, with one hour to shower and play cards or dominoes. There were no windows, there were no trips outside, there was no free time and there was no hope. We did however receive respite from lock-down once a week for a visiting minister. Most of the Christian men who came to visit and preach were of the “hell, fire, and brimstone” variety, but there was this one guy who said some things that really piqued my interest.
You have to realize, the last thing I wanted to hear is the judgment of God message; they would say, “You are going to hell if you don’t change your life”, and I would reply, “You first!” You see, I was still angry with God, I wasn’t happy that He had saved my life; I thought God was a mean son of a gun, and I didn’t want anything to do with Him anymore. If hell was real, then I was certainly headed that direction one way or another. We were allowed one hour out of our cages for “chapel”, and the administration agreed that as long as we didn’t cause a distraction, we could do whatever we liked. So as we played poker, the preacher would drone on about sin, hell, pain, and eventual judgment. One night a different guy came to preach; he was very polite and actually respectful. What a change of pace! As I was raising the poker pot on my way to a flush, he began to read a famous sermon. He stopped a short way into the sermon and asked if anyone recognized the piece. I raised my hand while never taking my eyes off of the “river card” and said, “Yeah, I know that sermon.”
He paused and waited. He looked at me and said, “Well, I’m sorry to interrupt your card game, but what is the name of the sermon…if you know the title.”
“It is ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ by Jonathan Edwards. It was a sermon given in the northeast during what is now referred to as the Great Awakening in America.”
Everyone looked at me like I had morphed into a Harvard professor and wondered where the inmate had gone. I hadn’t been the talkative type.
“That’s right!” the somewhat stunned preacher replied.
“You seem surprised that someone like me would know that.”
“No, no…well, honestly, yes. I’m a little surprised, but I’m glad you know it. You have heard a version of this sermon the entire time you have been here. Haven’t you? In fact, you have probably heard a sermon very similar to this your entire life. Am I right?”
“Well, I want to show you the other side of the coin. I want to share with you a different approach.”
The preacher went on to tell us of a loving God, of a God that yearns for fellowship with His creation, a God that would go to any length to show His love for each of us. I laughed out loud and mocked him, “Look sir, I understand that your intentions are good, but I don’t know that God. Yes, I have felt His love before, but that was long ago. The God I know is cruel and unfair, the God I know is one of judgment, the God I know demands too much from us mere mortals, and the God I know is not some love-hungry being…sorry, I just know God all too well.”
The preacher didn’t get defensive, he didn’t get flustered, and he didn’t challenge me in the least. He simply asked me a question, “Have you read the Bible?”
“Yes, I have. And in fact, I have studied it quite extensively,” as my fellow inmates stare at me in bewilderment. I raised the poker pot again as I stared down the guy bluffing across the table.
“Well, let me continue. Think on what I am saying, and we can talk next week if you like.”
“Yeah, sure…it’s a date”, I mumbled under my breath as I grinned at the bluffer who just folded.
Even though I didn’t agree with this man, I did enjoy his method and presentation. He was passionate and almost giddy with love for this God I did not recognize. I acquired a Bible that night from the book cart and began a process that started as a proof that he was wrong and ended with me eating my words. Like I alluded to earlier, when you haven’t been in the Word for a while, you lose the language. In my zest to prove this preacher wrong, I began to fall in love with the gospel again. You have to know by now that I was terribly jaded and must be thinking to yourself, “Oh no, not again!” And that is exactly what I thought as well. I was getting “sucked” back into the whole Christian spirituality thing again. But this time I was a hard nut to crack. I was convinced that God couldn’t love me; I was convinced that God could not forgive me, and I was convinced that I didn’t want to go down this road again. But, in all honesty, what were the options? I had discarded my life, alienated all who loved me, didn’t care whether I lived or died, and the only hope I had was that one day soon I could get back to having a cold beer and watching Monday night football! But the more I read, the more it changed me.
I had plenty of time on my hands, so I devoured the Bible like a hungry dog with a plate of bacon in front of him. I read Watchman Nee, Thomas Merton, Billy Graham, Charles Spurgeon, to name a few and started a devotional called “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren to complement my 5-6 hours per day of Scripture. That preacher and I started to write letters back and forth to one another and I enjoyed the quick 5 minute chats after the weekly “chapel” service. That man started a process in me that ultimately really did save my life. But I still did not understand grace. I understood it intellectually, but had no assurances that the “offer was still on the table”. That all changed one day when a room on the second floor became available by default and it was my turn to have my own room.
You know you have been in a jail for a while when the second floor was offered to you. I loathed sharing a room with some of the characters that circulated through my cell. The first guy never, ever stopped talking about his drug dealings, the second guy brought tobacco and rolling papers tucked into his anal cavity, and the last guy was always asking me if I was sure I didn’t want to perform favors for him! It was nightmarish to say the least, but at least I had my Bible. When the second guy rolled into my cell, he promptly sat on the toilet and moaned and groaned and ultimately produced a pooh-covered cellophane package from his anus…lovely. He offered me a cigarette. I cordially declined.
So when the second floor was offered, I jumped on it like a June-bug on a biscuit. The second floor “promotion” means that you don’t have to share a room; you get your own private hell. Considering the nefarious situation, it proved to be an offer I couldn’t refuse. When I moved upstairs, I noticed that the room had a window that somehow had been half-exposed through the paint (all the windows were painted from the outside to block the view from the inside or to block the atrocities that I assumed were put on display to the outside world). I realized I hadn’t seen outside for a very long time. As the door shut behind me with that hollow, echoing thud that inmates know all too well, I relished the silence and feasted my eyes on the sunset. The foreground was a parking lot filled with police cars; past the parking lot was a lone Oak tree, and beyond the tree were rolling hills. The sun was setting just above the hills and bathed the room in a glorious hue of amber and orange. The Oak stood there lonely and defiant against the rays of the last gasp of a winter’s afternoon. In that moment, my life would change forever and for good.
A voice deep inside of me said, “I love you my child.” This caught me completely by surprise. All the hardness of my heart was defenseless against such divine words. I shook my head and thought my mind was playing tricks on me. Like a soft, summer breeze the words flowed over me again, “I love you my child, return to Me. I’ve missed you.” I just lost it. A flood of textured emotions came down on me like a thunderstorm: I missed my family, I missed my God, I knew in an instant that the Oak all alone out there was me, I knew that life was waiting for me, and I kept hearing God whisper that He loved me. It is funny sometimes how hollow and overused the word “love” can be; this was the fullest and most intimate love I probably will ever experience this side of eternity. It consumed me, it swallowed me, and it was meant to never be forgotten. There is a verse in Scripture that says “death is swallowed up by life”; I never knew what that really meant. I know now what that means. I will go into more detail later about this notion that a person has to experience a Bible verse before that person really understands that verse, but enough to say, my entire being was swallowed by love so sweet and pure that I would never be the same again.
I argued with God, “You can’t love me, I’m not loveable. I turned my back on You. You can’t possibly want anything I have to offer.”
He answered, “Just come home and be with Me. I never left you and I never will.”
I had an epiphany that made me cry like a baby: I realized that I had turned my back on God, but He had never turned His back on me! That is the moment I knew grace. Grace is another word that escapes our best intellectual efforts. Grace is a feeling of freedom. Grace is a physical feeling of having an unseen weight lifted off of our shoulders and off of our hearts. Grace brings you to your knees in awe of a love that is so overpowering that you cannot bear the lightness of it. The tears flowed and I found myself wailing out of control. I began to get paranoid that some of the other inmates would hear and question my mask of hardness. I fell to my knees and just drank in the Presence. My heart had finally completely broken. It is almost laughable how it is impossible to heal a heart until it is completely broken. God is a master of building out of brokenness; He chases after us and waits for an opportunity to heal a broken heart, but He can’t operate while the heart is hard. Sometimes life will break our hearts; sometimes God will break it for us.
Thank you for reading chapter five of “A Life Unplugged”. If this is your first chapter of “A Life Unplugged” and you want to catch up in the story, you can click on any chapter as follows:
Introduction, Chapter One: Holy Hippies, Chapter Two: Southern Exposure, Chapter Three: The Holy Spirit and The Demon, Chapter Four: Grappling with Gravity or on to Chapter Six: The Freedom to Live Out Loud!