A seminary student experiences a crisis of faith when he finds his life in imminent danger.
Dec 9, 2011
The frozen, snow-covered lake sparkled under my feet in the bright noonday sun. It was the first Saturday in March, still cold enough in Michigan for a coat and gloves even for a short walk. I’d learned to love the rugged Midwest winters during my four years at seminary, one of many adjustments from where I grew up in South Korea.
My eyes traced my footsteps back across the ice, to the trees, then to the retreat center on the bluff, where I’d started my hike and had been staying since the evening before. Other than the caretaker, Robert, and his wife, I had the old farmhouse to myself.
I’d come here to study the Bible, pray and draw closer to God, to better understand his will for my life. So much was happening in the next few months, graduation, returning home to my parents and fiancée, the start of my ministry.
Where would my faith journey take me? I wanted to be prepared. But I couldn’t relax. The isolation was unnerving. Where was God?
That morning I’d sat in my room and read my favorite Psalms. Heavenly Father, hear my prayer, I said after each one. There was no still small voice, only a distant creaking sound. I couldn’t just sit there. I had to do something. A little after 12:30 P.M. I decided to hike across the hardened lake to a trail.
I was close to the other side when I reached a large tangle of impassable branches. There was no alternative; I’d have to turn around. Disappointed, I took a step. Crack!
I plunged into the water neck deep. Instinctively my hands grabbed onto the ice. “HELP!” I screamed. “HELP!!!!” Cold stabbed every inch of my body.
I stretched my arms as far as I could, frantically kicking my legs to try to scramble back on top of the ice. A large piece broke off instantly. I lunged to keep hold of it, arms flailing. But my weight pushed it below the surface.
I dog-paddled a foot or two to the still-intact ice sheet and held on with just the tips of my gloves. I didn’t dare put any more pressure on it for fear it would break.
“Heavenly Father! Help me!” I pleaded. I opened my mouth, sucking my breath deep into my lungs then pushed it out as hard as I could. “HEL-L-L-LP!!!” The only response was the sound of the branches creaking in the wind.
There was no one around to hear my cries. Robert and his wife had gone out. I remembered my reading of the Psalms—He knows my every thought. I tried not to panic. God will deliver me.
I couldn’t feel my feet. My mind was in a fog. I looked to the shore. Only 100 feet away. Do something, I told myself. I raised a gloved hand and smashed it through a section of ice. I could break a trail to land. Lord, give me strength.
I shifted the chunk that split off behind me, then broke off another piece, steered it out of the way and pulled myself to the next section. I tried to keep kicking, but my legs felt so heavy, like anchors pulling me down.
“Somebody help,” I cried. The words came out as a kind of wheeze.
I slammed my fist against the ice again. The glove caught on a jagged edge and tore off. My hand was as red as a strawberry. I couldn’t break a trail anymore. It took all my strength to keep from slipping underwater.
My whole body was growing numb. I remembered reading that people could freeze to death in 45 minutes. I glanced up at the sun. It was just starting its descent. Was it 1:00 P.M. yet? How much longer could I last?
My coat seemed to weigh 500 pounds. Take...it...off, my brain told me. I’d be lighter, able to pull myself out of the water onto the ice. I let go of the ice and reached for the zipper. I sank like a stone. My head throbbed. I can’t breathe!
One desperate kick and I burst out of the water, fighting for air. I clawed the ice and hung on. I looked up at the retreat center, this place where I’d come to commune with God.
He was the only one who knew I was out here. I’d dedicated my life to serving him. Given sermons on the power of prayer. Trusted that he’d always be there for me. Now the one time I needed him most... Please God! I only have a few minutes left.
I thought of my parents and fiancée in Korea. Would I ever see them again? My heart ached with sorrow. I felt so alone. Forgotten. I wanted to cry, but no tears would come. I couldn’t move, couldn’t feel a thing.
I gazed helplessly at the shore. I faded in and out of consciousness. It’s over. No one was coming to rescue me. My eyes closed. I forced them open. I felt the oddest sensation, not a voice, more like an insistent internal message: Make a noise, like an animal.
I opened my mouth and howled like a wolf. My tongue was so swollen I could barely make a sound. Why had God abandoned me? Was I that insignificant to him?
Everything around me was hazy. Soon I’d slip beneath the surface for the last time. Father God, I give you my spirit. Would he hear me even now?
What was that sound? Someone shouting? A man coming to me carrying a sled. I recognized his face. Robert, the caretaker from the retreat center. Someone had heard me. But it was too late. I was sinking, drowning. Everything went black.
I awoke groggy and disoriented. There was a nurse beside me. “Haengso! My name is Emily. You’re at South Bend Memorial. You’re going to be okay.” I looked around. I wondered how long I’d been here.
“It’s six,” she said. “Still Saturday. Everybody is going to be very glad to see you. You know a person can only last in freezing water for forty-five minutes. You must’ve been in the water that long.”
Friends and faculty from seminary came to visit me. “It’s incredible you survived,” they said. “When you got to the hospital your temperature was only eighty degrees. You’re lucky to be alive.”
I was grateful to have survived, but that’s what it seemed like to me, simply dumb luck. It couldn’t fill the emptiness inside of me. I needed to know my life mattered to God. If he’d been with me in the icy water wouldn’t I have sensed it?
The next afternoon I was released. A friend drove me back to the retreat center so I could retrieve my car. Robert answered the door. “Boy, am I glad to see you,” he said. “My wife and I have been praying for you.”
“Thank you for rescuing me,” I said. “They say I’m lucky to be here.”
Robert looked puzzled. “Luck? It wasn’t luck. It was a miracle. We’d just gotten back to the house at one forty-five when I heard a grunting sound. I looked and saw you out on the ice. I ran and got a rope and sled and made my way out to you. But I could only hold you. It was another twenty-five minutes before the paramedics got you out of the water.”
I’d been in freezing water for over 80 minutes! Far longer than humanly possible. I was stunned and a little ashamed. How could I have ever doubted?
I’d come to the retreat center wanting to be closer to my heavenly Father, wanting to feel his love for me. When I fell through the ice, he drew me into his arms and held me close. The warmth of his love, that was what saved me.
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