February was a month of tragedy in my life…as well as a reminder that just a year ago, in February of 2007, I too had a near-death experience on a snowy highway in southern Colorado. In almost every way I have recovered from the broken neck. I ski bumps, mountain bike (on easy trails), and have resumed a normal (meaning chaotic) travel schedule. Every time I pass a cross on the side of the road or a person in a wheelchair, I remember with deep gratitude the second chance I got at life.
It seems lately I’ve done more speaking than writing. In a moment of weakness I agreed to speak at my church five weeks in a row, covering the entire book of Romans. All in all it was a rich experience in every way. That, however, was when the tragedy started. On the first Sunday a vanload full of missionaries driving up from Colorado Springs was hit by a driver who had a heart attack or diabetic coma. The van flipped eight to ten times, killing three of the occupants instantly, including an 18-month-old boy. Photos in the paper showed his car seat in the middle of the highway, which was closed for seven hours. Well, turns out they were coming up to hear me preach, so we got involved with the family. One young woman headed toward Botswana had her C-2 and C-3 vertebrae fused, and after three weeks flew home to Michigan wearing a Halo support. The father of the dead child has shoulder problems, but more psychic problems than anything else since he was the driver. His wife was in deep trouble, with brain injuries, no apparent movement on her left side, and at least a dozen complex fractures that they hadn’t even dealt with yet. She was intubated and basically comatose for a couple of weeks until they got her lungs working and stabilized her.
We got involved with the family, in an odd way feeling somewhat responsible for the accident even though we had never met them. Andrea, the badly injured woman, is daughter of regional representatives for the Friends denomination in southern California. We were able to find a place for the family to stay and visit them in the hospital. (Janet is a pro at hospital visits.) After six weeks in a hospital in Denver, Andrea was airlifted by hospital jet to California in mid-March. Since then she’s made remarkable progress recovering from the brain injury. Her husband Scott says that in Colorado she would give “normal” responses about 15% of the time and showed little emotional affect. Now she gives normal responses about 95% of the time, and often shows no evidence of brain trauma. She still cannot bear weight on her left side because the nutrition through the feeding tube was inadequate to support the bone growth she needed; she has surgical pins in numerous places. She can move her left hand, but not her arm because of the shoulder surgery. And she can only whisper, not talk, because of damage done to her vocal cords through extended intubation and the neck surgeries. The best news of all, though, is that Andrea’s brain impairment seems to be minimal. Scott says he feels day by day that he’s getting his wife back. Andrea has only one memory of her entire six-week stay in Colorado: that’s the day Scott broke the news to her that their 18-month-old son Isaac died in the accident. They’re back home now, among friends, with at least a month more in the rehab hospital. She’s eating solid food now. They were headed to Cambodia as missionaries (still a dream), and Scott brings her Cambodian food every day to help the healing. I sent books and a letter to the parents of the two young missionary women who died in the same accident, one from Georgia and one from South Africa. The parents are people of strong faith, and doing their best to cope with the tragedy. Thanks for your partnership in upholding Janet and me as we try to dispense God’s grace to others.
The very same week of the accident, dear friends of ours who brought us to China a few years ago lost their six-month-old grandson to a sudden virus, and we drove to Montrose, Colorado for the funeral. It snowed the night before, and for the better part of five hours we drove through a pristine landscape of red rock canyons coated with shining white snow, scenery to take your breath away. Then the funeral: a somber event that featured a video of “Alexander the Great,” as they called little Alex, and an inconsolable family who had gathered from Hong Kong, London, and elsewhere to try to come to terms with something no one should have to face.
And, yes, the very same week my uncle died in Philadelphia and I flew out for that funeral. He had lived a long life, and I was struck by the difference between a funeral for a six-month-old and a near-80 year-old. My uncle’s funeral had its comic aspects. As all three sisters gathered around the flowers and collection of photos of Jim as a grade school student, Boy Scout, Army private, etc., his scraggly alcoholic-gamblaholic brother said, “Wait a minute-that’s not Jim, that’s me!” Indeed, the sisters were wiping their eyes and grieving over photos of the one standing right next to them. Then, the minister was told the wrong funeral home, so I ended up conducting my very first funeral service. Ah, families… I was due to preach on Romans 8 the next weekend, so I had plenty to say.
The next month, in a most fascinating assignment, I was invited to speak to the senior chaplains of the U.S. Army. Each year the most senior chaplains get together for a time of spiritual renewal: about 250 of them, all ranked Lieutenant Colonel and above. I’d been warned that the group would include Jews and perhaps Muslims, Buddhists, even Wiccans, but in fact most of this senior group would probably categorize themselves as evangelicals. They sang the same songs you hear at evangelical churches, and early morning prayer meetings were enthusiastic and well attended. A fine Southern Baptist chaplain serves as head chaplain of the Army, and he asked me to speak on prayer. (He’s a general, and when he called the house to invite me and identified himself, Janet informed him her husband was a bit too old to be recruited!) He had read my book on prayer and said that chaplains really need to get renewed and refreshed: many of them have had duty extended as long as 15 months, which takes a big toll on their families and morale. Plus, in that 15 months more than 1000 American soldiers will be killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the chaplains are the ones who deal with the buddies left behind, or those with limbs blown off and brain injuries.
Janet and I went a day early to Hilton Head Island get to know the group, and it was quite an experience. I can’t tell you how many came up and described reading The Jesus I Knew in a tent in Iraq or What’s So Amazing About Grace while fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The head chaplain at Walter Read Army Hospital told me he gives the books I wrote with Dr. Paul Brand to every hospital chaplain; he once heard Dr. Brand speak in person. They say the level of theological discourse for soldiers on the front lines is much higher than what you’d hear at a suburban church in the U.S.—for good reason, since they face mortality every day.
There are U.S. Army personnel in 80 countries, with chaplains in most of them: 4000 in all. Not having been around the military much, I had to adjust to the culture: every meeting started and ended on time (“o’ seven hundred”); everyone addressed Janet and me as “ma’am” and “sir”; and the bureaucracy and acronyms were everywhere. Yet it was a pleasure to bring some comfort and stimulation to people who are so stressed-out and are dealing with young soldiers on the edge of sanity. I spoke for a solid hour and they seemed hungry for more. I felt honored to be with them even though I’m not a military person (I had the longest hair of any man there, and most women) and I disagree with some of the assignments our troops are given. On the other hand, the chaplains are the ones helping put back together lives shattered by those assignments. Prayer, for them, is a lifeline.Copyright © 2008 by Philip Yancey