Last week, while driving on a highway in the pouring rain, my car spun out of control as I took a turn. I went around a couple of times and hit the left side retaining wall with my front end. The collision knocked the car back onto the highway and pointed me forward. I was able to drive to the right side of the highway and assess the damage. The front end was bashed in, but the car was still drivable. I noticed that the air bag had deployed, a burst that seriously abraded my wrists and knocked off my glasses; but the trauma that occurred on the outside rendered me oblivious to the drama that took place inside of the car. The whole incident took less than ten seconds.
As I drove off to the body repair shop (where the insurance adjuster eventually declared that the car was totaled), I was flooded with feelings of gratitude. I wasn’t hurt, nor was anyone else. My gratitude was deepened by the memory that I had spun out on that same curve on that same highway in a similar downpour 44 years earlier. And there were no injuries in that accident either.
I was able to recognize that my gratitude was partly fueled by adrenaline, which was released as soon as I lost control of the car. But early the next morning, when the adrenaline had run its course, and it was clear that my body had experienced no whiplash or other aftershocks, I looked back on the incident, which by this point had been unplugged from the constraints of time. Those ten seconds became a portal through which I could reflect on my physical, mental and spiritual reactions and resources. And I realized that I had surrendered in that flash of time: physically, by recognizing that I was no longer in control (although I think I reflexively turned into the skid, as I was taught years ago); mentally, that there was nothing I could do to change what was happening (although I was disappointed that it was happening); and spiritually, that in the surrendering I felt a divine presence that was with me, and embracing me – and wouldn’t leave.
There is a temptation to interject personal intentions and expectations into those portal moments; a kind of psychic adrenaline. To have the incident confirm an attitude, theology or position. I have heard many people say – after similar incidents, that it was God’s plan that they were spared. That Jesus took control of the car and drove them to safety. I have experienced that temptation at times, and have usually resisted it, because that sort of claim suggests that we can guide, if not control, what God can and will do.
Which is not surrender.
A week after my accident I keep thinking of the 3rd commandment: thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain. Most of us were taught that it meant we shouldn’t use bad words. That is part of it, but there is a deeper dimension to this important commandment: don’t say you believe in God if you don’t. Don’t use God to advance your own agenda. God is not a tool that we take out when we need God, and put God back when we are done. Don’t presume to think that God is on your side (as more and more politicians are claiming in their campaigns). The only side God has ever been on is God’s side.
As I hydroplaned on the highway, I realized how vulnerable I was in that moment. And yet – I felt supported. I was alone, but not really. Am I projecting backward? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I was relatively calm. I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but somehow, mysteriously, I was not alone. And I was grateful for that.
Portals open up in moments of intense vulnerability. In countless pastoral situations over the decades, when people have survived a near-death experience, people have told me of their calm – and confidence that they were not alone. Some were religious people; many were not.
Almost everyone claimed an invitation to surrender, and somehow, it would be OK. It was for me.