Epilogue to Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?

The last weekend of February, 2007, I spoke at a historic church in Los Alamos, New Mexico.  In the 1940s the U.S. government built a large laboratory on forested mesas as part of the Manhattan Project, and as a town sprang up to support the laboratory believers from various denominations joined together to form the United Church.  Los Alamos has the highest concentration of Ph.D.’s in the world, and my hosts lined up a meeting with scientists from the lab, including some who had witnessed the original hydrogen bomb explosion.

When I spoke to the community on the subject of prayer that evening, I related some of the mountain-climbing adventures I allude to in this book.  For instance, on the day my wife and I summited Mt. Wilson we were still well above the safety of timberline when dark clouds moved in and the skies opened up to pelt us with sleet and hail.  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 crashed 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.  What transpired on the mountain that day had nothing to do with me.  I was in the hands of far larger forces.  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.  Like many roads in Colorado, it curved back and forth around streams, hills, and mountain passes.  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, steering left, then right, then left again 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.  The radio console shot out of the dashboard.  Every window shattered, spilling skis, boots, ice skates, my laptop computer, and luggage across the Colorado countryside.  As I rolled, two things came to mind.  Philip, you’ve always managed to pull out of these close scrapes before, but not this time.  And, Whatever you do, keep your hands on the steering wheel so your arms don’t flop around and get broken.

Finally the rolling stopped, with the vehicle in an upright position.  The engine was still running, and I recalled scenes from movies in which wrecked cars burst into flames.  I turned off the ignition, unbuckled my seat belt, 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.

Within five minutes a car pulled over and a portly middle-aged man got out.  “Are you OK?  We saw the dust cloud from the rollover,” he said.  “Man, oh, man.  Shouldn’t you be sitting down?  Shouldn’t you put on a coat?”  I stared at him, dazed, and finally did what he said, putting on a coat and sitting back in the driver’s seat, holding a tissue to my nose and dabbing the facial cuts.  The pain in my back kept me from finding a comfortable position.

I started thinking of appointments and trips I would need to cancel and other details I would have to deal with—insurance, computer repair, shopping for a new vehicle, police reports.  These were chased out by a shock of gratitude that I was alive, my fingers and toes still moving, my brain still functioning.  “You wouldn’t be here now without that seat belt,” said the driver who had stopped to help.  I looked around at my smashed Explorer and had to agree.

A few minutes later a second car pulled over.  A well-dressed couple got out, ran to the scene, and started giving orders rather than asking questions.  I soon learned why: 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.

The Alamosa hospital, which has no radiologist on duty on weekends, had outsourced diagnosis to an outfit in Australia.  As a result, digitized CAT-scan images had to be sent via satellite to Australia (where it was Monday, a normal work day) for interpretation.  The images were so dense that high-speed transmittal took an hour, and the Australian radiologists needed another hour to properly analyze the images.  For those two hours I lay in a most uncomfortable position on the body board, awaiting results.  I could have nothing for pain, and no water or nourishment, until results came back.  Hospital personnel, who knew I had been walking around after the accident, did not seem overly concerned and mostly left me alone.  I stared at the perforated tile ceiling and listened to the sounds around me: a crying baby, a squeaky wheelchair, metal bars on a bed being raised and lowered, the changing pitch of a siren as an ambulance approached.

When the results came back from Australia, everything changed.  The doctor came in with prefatory words that no patient wants to hear: “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 spinal column has three channels, one for the spinal cord and two for arterial blood supply, which is where my fractures occurred.  The bad news was that due to the splintered nature of the break, a bone fragment may well have nicked or penetrated a major artery.

“We have a jet standing by if needed to airlift you to Denver,” 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.”

My wife, Janet, whom I had phoned from the ambulance, had scrambled to throw some clothes in an overnight bag and begin the four-hour drive to Alamosa to join me.  A Good Samaritan neighbor insisted on going with her, a magnificent gift as it freed her to make phone calls and compose herself during that tense drive.  They had driven exactly halfway when the doctor called her with the initial diagnosis, explaining that if the dye scan revealed arterial leakage they could not hold the plane for her; I would be airlifted to Denver immediately.

Cell phones in mountainous Colorado are an imperfect technology: about every third word drops and the call cuts off every thirty seconds or so.  My own cell phone was running low on battery power and tended to drop calls whenever hospital machines kicked on.  Janet was trying to decide whether to turn around and drive back to Denver in the event I needed surgery, or continue on to Alamosa with the possibility of watching my jet contrails in the sky above her.  When I reached her by phone, staticky and barely audible because of hospital machinery, I insisted she come to Alamosa: “You’ve got to pick up my laptop computer!  It’s got all my weekend work on it.”  She took that as a sign of stubborn male rationality and made the uneasy decision to keep driving.

Technicians rolled me in for the iodine-dye scan, and then left me alone again to wait for the transmission to Australia and the next set of results.  In all, I lay strapped onto that body board for seven hours, 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.  Evidently I had narrowly missed that fate (and I mean narrowly—my break was about one-half inch from the spinal cord).  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.

I stayed calm throughout, my pulse hovering around 70, as the monitor flashed in LED lights.  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 of 37 years, all but three of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot mountains under my belt, adventures in more than 50 countries, and work that allows me both meaning and near-total freedom, connections through my writing with people I’ve never met.  (The morphine drip a nurse had just attached to my arm may well have contributed to this sense of calmness!)

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.  Although I have no clue what heaven or an afterlife will be like, I felt sustained by that trust.

Those were the hours of strange suspension: Janet speeding down the highway with our neighbor, feeling helpless and unsure, imagining how her life would change with a dead or paralyzed husband; and me strapped on a table, utterly helpless, with the images that would determine my future bouncing off a satellite en route to Australia.

As it happened, thank God—oh, yes, thank God—the results turned out far better than either of us could hope.  The scans revealed no arterial leakage.  The hospital released me within an hour of Janet’s arrival, fitted with a stiff neck brace that would keep my head from moving for the next twelve weeks.  If all goes well (and I am still recovering as I write this), the fractures and misaligned vertebrae may heal back appropriately on their own; if not, I may need surgery for spinal fusion sometime down the road.

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, featured that day in the local paper as 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 as catastrophic as the alternatives.

I remember sitting in the Ford Explorer as it finally stopped rolling, its engine still running, and thinking, “This begins chapter two of my life.”  Indeed it did, though with considerably brighter prospects than it seemed at the time.  I hope to ski long mogul runs again, to climb more 14ers and gaze at the wildflowers along the way, to cherish friends and love my wife and family and thank God for every minute of this precious gift of life.

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 non-life, 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.  Samuel Johnson said that when a person knows he is about to be hanged, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.  Any near-death experience does that.

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.

Then the sleepless nights in a neck brace began to take their toll; woodpeckers hammered holes in the west wall of our house; in an electronic conspiracy the television, microwave, and refrigerator all stopped working.  Life also grinds you down.

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 non-life, 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?

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.  The month of the accident, I was leading an online discussion on this book hosted by a Quaker publisher.  One of the participants wrote me that Quakers have a phrase they were exercising on my behalf: “holding you in the light.”  I felt held, truly.

One more thing: on that scary day in February and during the days that followed, I learned to put into practice what I have written about in the pages of this book.  I have used the phrase “keeping company with God,” which was indeed my working title of the book as I wrote it.  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.  And over the next few months I felt the sure sense of, as the Quakers had expressed it, being held in the light.

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.”

I have referred to “coincidences” the day of the accident: my vehicle happening to end its tumble upright (with a broken neck, undoing my seat belt while upside down could have proved fatal), the Mormons happening to take that remote road early Sunday morning, the hospital personnel, my neighbor volunteering to drive Janet to the hospital.  Of course, a skeptic could look at the same set of events and say, “Wait a minute.  What about the accident itself?  If God orchestrated these things you call mini-miracles, why couldn’t God have kept you on the road in the first place?”

It’s a good question, I admit, exactly the kind of question that prompted this book in the first place.  The subject of prayer will always remain full of mystery.  Someone asked me if I wished I had written this book after the accident rather than before.  I said, No.  I might have been tempted to over-emphasize the “happy ending” aspect of prayer, whereas so many people live with the kind of ongoing struggle that fills this book.  I must say, though, that the process of wrestling with the puzzle of prayer for several years served as excellent preparation for what I went through in February, 2007, just a few months after its publication.  Does prayer make a difference?  Even more now than when I wrote this book, I believe it does.

Philip Yancey

August 2007

Copyright © 2007 by Philip Yancey