After a terrible accident, a movie screen made him realize that every moment in life should be cherished.
Every day I live in pain. Mostly it’s my left arm. The limb I almost lost in a freak accident two years ago. Now my brain erroneously senses sharp pain there at every moment. I’m numb in several fingers. I can’t grip things with my thumb. I used to be the big, strong, go-to, fix-it guy at the church where I’m an executive pastor. The guy who could lift his kids and swing them around without breaking a sweat. I’m not that guy anymore.
And yet I give thanks for the accident that forever changed my life. I’ve come to believe that pain can be a blessing. That loss itself can be an opportunity. Not convinced? Well, let me tell you my story…
It happened on my daughter Cara’s sixth birthday. It was a cool, fresh Saturday morning at First Baptist, my church in Thousand Oaks, California. My wife, Natalie, and I were planning on hosting a party for Cara on the church grounds later that afternoon. It had rained the night before, so I woke up early to clear the church patio and walkways of fallen leaves. Actually, it was a fun job, mostly because I got to walk around with a leaf blower backpack.
That task was one of the few things I did at church that felt fun those days. I was 34. I’d been doing ministry of one kind or another for 16 years. Ever since I was a counselor at a Christian youth camp the summer after high school. My dad was a pastor too; I guess you could say it was in my blood. I’d been a pastor at First Baptist for six years. I handled a lot of the day-to-day, the event planning and leading the church school. I knew everything there was to know about the nuts and bolts of a church. Maybe too much.
I never let myself say it out loud, but I had fallen into a rut. I was fast approaching a danger zone for pastors—burnout. Sometimes work felt more like a office job than a calling. I worked and worked. But did it really make a difference? It’s not as if I were bringing in legions of new people to the church. I’d dreamed of doing big things for God when I was a young man. Now my life seemed to be an endless cycle of worship planning, e-mails and meetings. Was that really what God had in mind when I gave my life to him all those years ago?
As I blew through the church campus, the leaf blower drowned out my thoughts. There was something satisfying about watching the leaves as they scattered off the walkways. I came around a corner and turned away from the church, waving the blower. I took a step backward to get an area I’d missed and lost my balance. I’d unknowingly stepped on a garden edger. The weight of the leaf blower on my back sent me toppling over. I reached my hand out toward the church wall to brace myself and—
My left arm smashed into a full-length, single-pane glass window. I screamed, falling to the ground. My arm was sliced all the way around the elbow joint as it came in contact with the broken shards of glass on the way down. There was blood everywhere. I caught sight of my arm and almost passed out. Muscle hung out of my bicep. The bones were still attached, but everything else was severed. I had to stop the bleeding! I had to get help! But I was at the back of the church, far from the street. There was no one else at the church. I’m going to die!
I hobbled to my feet, grabbed my injured arm with my right hand and squeezed. Blood continued shooting out of it. I tried to run toward the parking lot. Maybe I could flag down a car? But suddenly I was dizzy. Disoriented. My right hand fell to my side. Blood poured out of my left arm. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my phone and dialed 911.
“I cut off my arm!” I yelled to the dispatcher and gave her the address for the church.
“Can you wrap a towel around it to make a tourniquet?” she said.
The world seemed to wobble around me. I saw movement up ahead. A tall, skinny guy with blond hair. He was running, looking from side to side. As if searching for something. Searching for me? He spotted me and stopped, then ran faster in my direction. I felt lightheaded, as if about to pass out. The blond guy reached me. He was young—I couldn’t tell how old. I handed him my phone and bent over in confusion. Then I fell to the ground. The world began to dim. Please, God, please save me... I need to be here for my wife and kids... I need…
I blacked out.
The next thing I saw was white. All white. As if I were enveloped in a cloud. I tried to speak, tried to pray. Only, in this gauzy place, it felt like I didn’t have to. As if my prayers were known before I said them. I tried to make sense of my surroundings. Before I could, a screen filled my vision. A giant, wraparound movie screen. In it were millions of small squares. Each one alive with images like photographs. I couldn’t see each one, but I knew what they were.
Moments. From my life. Surrounding me. My attention zeroed on a few of the images. Natalie. Cara. My son, Corban. They were surrounded by something, a kind of light. Like halos of love. Love for me. Love that I knew came from God. He was the source! Of all the love I’d given and received the past 34 years of my life. How could I have ever taken even one moment for granted?
The screen disappeared. The white cloud intensified. I felt a deep peace. The end was near. I sensed myself lying on the pavement of the church parking lot. That blond guy was kneeling beside me, pressing something against my arm. The paramedics arrived. One of them tied a tourniquet around my arm. I heaved a giant breath and— WHOOSH! Faces stared down at me. I was back. And in incredible pain.
The rest of the day unfolded in a series of coincidences. Natalie’s mom arrived early to the church with a bunch of balloons for the party, freaked out and called Natalie. I was rushed to the hospital, where one of California’s most skilled plastic surgeons just happened to be on call. He put my arm back together. Most incredibly, I later discovered that the guy who spotted me at the church had picked up my phone, talked to the dispatcher and found a towel to hold against my arm.
The doctors said if he hadn’t done that, I would’ve died in 30 more seconds. He wasn’t a member of the congregation. He’d simply wandered onto the church grounds, looking for his lost cat. Looking for his lost cat!
I went through months of gruesome rehabilitation after that day. I eventually regained some function in my left arm. But, two years later, the nerves still don’t work quite right. I’ve tried all sorts of remedies for the pain—I even had signal blocks implanted in my spine. Nothing seems to help. So why do I give thanks for such a traumatic experience? One I continue to experience every day?
Because of that movie screen. And the realization that every moment of life matters. That my job, no matter how seemingly routine, matters. I look forward to going to work now. I even look forward to meetings—mostly. I especially love coming home to my family. I know where the love we share comes from. Thanks to the glimpse I received of love’s great source.
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