In my last post I told the story of my miraculous survival of a sudden cardiac arrest. My experience of that event once I regained consciousness is another story of experiencing the powerful presence of God. ( I know not all who read this believe in the Judeo-Christian narrative found in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. I invite you to just “listen” to my experience, as I am likewise willing to listen and respect yours.)
As I came to at some point coming down the trail and while being moved to a stretcher and then loaded onto an ambulance, I knew where I was and that something significant had happened. I felt terrible, like a truck had run over me, and while I was able to answer the paramedic’s questions, it was a struggle to focus. I kept trying to shake the cobwebs loose but they would not go away.
I do not know how long it took the ambulance to arrive at the hospital, but they apparently made a wrong turn coming out of the entrance to the property where we were camping, losing about four minutes. This is according to my friend, Lynn Buckles, who was riding in the front seat of the ambulance. Another factor that likely added to the confusion, is that a truck was on fire on the road near the entrance. This all seems so bizarre, unreal, like something out of a movie: collapsing on a trail, burning truck, wrong turn, riding in an ambulance?
Even the ambulance making it to the property is an amazing story of grace, as the property has no physical address. Earlier in the week someone associated with Crossroads Man Camp figured out how to fool Google Maps into dropping a GPS location pin. Only four people at the Camp knew the “address” and Bryan Carter was one of the four.
Bryan is the Crossroads Community Pastor for the Lexington campus and had a central role in hosting Man Camp. He was a busy man helping shepherd a thousand men through registration and on to their campsites. If he had not been listening to the Spirit he never would have come to the commotion surrounding my collapse. While he heard the cries for a Medic, he assumed someone had turned an ankle or something similar hiking up the trail. So he felt no urgency to investigate until he felt an inner prompting of the Spirit to do so. If he had not been there to take the phone from Basilo Harley who had dialed 911 the ambulance would not have known how to find our location.
And the same goes for Basilo having a cell phone. All of “the campers” had been strongly encouraged to leave our cell phones in our cars and “unplug” for the weekend. According to Basilo, when he saw one of his camping mates leaving his phone in the glove compartment, he had the thought, was prompted?, “maybe I should keep my phone with me in case of an emergency”. I do not know Basilo, he reached out to me through Facebook to tell me his story. I know he is from out of town, likely Ohio, but he had 911 on his phone to give to Bryan who knew the fake address of our location. Crazy, bizarre stuff; God stuff.
One of the most astonishing experiences for me was who showed up along the way. At almost every juncture, beginning in the ER, there was someone I knew taking care of me, all of them former clients of mine. These are people that knew me and that I knew. I did not always immediately recognize them but they let me know and of course I remembered. In the interest of confidentiality I cannot give specifics but it was stunning how often in the course of my treatment, five specific instances, former clients were taking care of me or associated with someone caring for me. It was incredibly humbling. It was like God was saying to me “Don, you are known and loved.”
I know some might dismiss this as incredulous, but I received comfort and encouragement seeing these folks, reinforcing to me the intimate connection there is in the body of Christ. It was as if the Spirit was saying to me “your life matters, and the work you do matters”, not as an ego thing, but as comforting, encouraging, and reassuring.
This experience, from the moment I collapsed and my heart stopped and all through treatment and open heart surgery manifested as a deep experience of connection that runs through everything and everyone, that there really is no separation, just connection. Separation is the illusion, connection is reality. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Romans 8:35.
I can only assume that God wants me to know this in an intimate and powerful way that only experience can impart. This is not an idea or an insight; it is a lived experience that has made a huge impression on me and one that I am trying to sort through its meaning. How do I now live in a world where there is no separation but everything and everyone is connected? Maybe this is what the mystics call union with God.
One of the things that almost without exception people comment on, those who have seen me in the hospital and out, either medical personnel or friends and family, is how well I seem and look. And my experience is the same. Somehow “I came back to myself” in the ER at St. Joe East after my heart catheterization. It is as if everything cleared up and I felt like myself, no worse for the wear. Maybe the sedation from the heart catheterization relaxed me, helped my anxiety, I really don’t know. I just know I felt fully present and not worried, even though my diagnosis was serious coronary artery disease requiring open heart bypass surgery. Holy cow, where did that come from? I have asymptomatic coronary heart disease meaning I did not present with symptoms commonly associated with heard disease. No one saw this coming.
How quickly life can change. I went from putting a pack on my back to being transported to St. Joe Main for open heart bypass surgery, and yet I felt nothing but peace and energy. There was such an experience of the presence of God that were it not for the sober realization that I was going to have my chest split open, my heart stopped for about four hours, my body put on life support, and then my heart started again, it was an exhilarating spiritual experience. And really it was both, overwhelming loss of control and exhilarating sense of the presence of God.
I want to make it clear that I have also had experiences, and still do, where I felt the absence of God, periods of confusion and doubt, where prayers were not answered. I have experienced suffering and pain with struggles that could not be overcome and that taught me as much, and maybe more, about God than have overcoming experiences. Learning to trust God in the dark, when you can’t see a way forward, grows faith in ways that miracles or other experiences of the power of God never can. Hebrews 5:8: “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.”
One of my favorite passages in Scripture is 2 Corinthians 1, specifically verses 3-11. Whether you are a believer in Jesus or not, this is beautiful literature that will speak to a deep place in your soul. And these words seem especially pertinent to my recent experience of an improbable survival. Paul speaks of a deep and abiding connection with the life of Christ and our life, with His sufferings, my sufferings, and your sufferings; with His comfort, my comfort, and your comfort. This is the passage from the New American Standard Bible:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in [b]any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are [c]ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; 7 and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.
And Paul then references specific afflictions they experienced in Asia in verses 8-11, as well as the deliverance from those afflictions that God provided:
8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in [d]Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 [e]indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, [f]He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.
When I listen to the stories of the men who were around me on that trail in Madison County, who jumped into action and saved my life with CPR and prayer, it is a similar story to Paul’s. The sentence of death (verse 9) was within me, my heart had stopped and they all saw it and felt it, this sentence of death. They felt the despair and fear that comes with death. And they experienced the joy and relief that comes from life arising in the face of death, “so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”