He smiled and looked around the room, clearly he wasn't one of the locals. He was related to no one, had only seen one of us before today, had no roots in this area and yet he was one of us just like the rest of us.
He started his story with a laugh and a tear. The tear came before the laugh I’m sure, but I didn’t know that till after he’d spoken. He was at the age where you typically give more advice on living than you get yet somehow his life had to go through a dark night before that privilege was truly his. In those later years of his life, he explained, there was a failed marriage still to come. There was confusion and estrangement still to come.
When they came he dealt with them like any of us might. The pain and depression of all this collapse gets coped with though anti-depressants, rightfully administered. Then more, still rightfully administered, then the ones from friends that were thoughtfully administered. Later still came the personally administered combination of those drugs followed by the blending of those personally administered medications with the professionally served alcohol. By this time the pain in his life was strong enough that a mild ignoring of the warning labels on both of those thoughtfully, professionally and rightfully administered inhibitors was by choice, by accident and in some ways by design.
He spoke of the point where the numbing combinations no longer proved of any value and how as that value diminished, so diminished his hope for reconciliation. He’d always been in control, in fact both of his parents were dead by the time he was 10 years old so taking matters into your own hands was (I believe) his life long legacy. By this time however, his own hands had failed him. There was nothing left.
He said that in his despair, he decided to head off to the mountains; to take a walk that would allow him to either sort things out or resolve the entire issue once and for all – a walk that in some ways was probably more like the ancient Inuit ritual of heading off to the ice flow. It wasn’t a conscious decision to end his life, more of a convenient result of his decision. Were he to conveniently fall off the mountain, die of exposure, or in some way be victim to a force greater than he; so be it. He explained that he was gifted in playing the role of the victim, so much so that he had even convinced himself so were he to perish that too would make him a victim.
He threw some of his hiking gear into his truck, tossed in a can of beef stew and can of Spam (both items that emotionally pulled him back to his childhood) and headed to the trailhead. He said it would take him a few days to get from there to a town, should he make it that far. It’s interesting to note that the reason he said, “if he made it that far” was based on his decision to give everything up. He gave up the pills, gave up the booze, gave up water, gave up eating, gave up everything not the least of which was hope. So, he walked.
When he finally decided to eat he came to the quick realization that a can of anything requires a can opener. He had given up everything and was now hungry emotionally, physically, socially. He was at that point where some strange line is crossed, a line that defies explanation. Medical science will tell you it’s the combined effect of dehydration; a time at which at the level of the cell, the moisture has been reduced to the point where the body can no longer sustain normal function and all energy goes back to preserving the “core”. Brain function, vital organs, the real essential portion of our bodies – the portion that gets things done; those were all failing. Some of the medications he gave up were specially designed to support exactly those functions. Blood pressure medications, heart medications, even something as elemental as sun block were all gone – all abandoned and in their places were two cans of food which he was helpless to open. His body was clinically in danger of catastrophic failure.
The other science though, the one that’s not really a science at all but carries even more influence was being affected, but in far more positive way. The science surrounding his spirit was in the process of re-engagement, of actually being rekindled. That science relies on catastrophic failure of the physical body as the fundamental building block of success. That science is the science of God. Power is displayed through weakness and success is identified through failure, the poor are rich and the rich are poor. My new friend was now learning that fundamental “God” science thing that says, “its not until you’re completely broken and useless, that I will do great things through you”.
After some time of wandering in a rapidly disintegrating state, he stumbled upon a campground parking lot. 30 years ago while walking the Appalachian Trail I learned all about campground parking lots and what I called the “hungry hiker” look. You learn how to slide up next to a tourist and play the role of the victim. How you talk, how you strike up a conversation about anything that interests them. Their cute little dog (that for all intensive purposes looks more tasty than cute), their awesome choice of campgrounds, the marvelous smell of coffee, even their shoes. Anything that gets them talking about themselves while highlighting your great taste in their great taste. Pretty soon they trust you, then they like you, THEN they feed you. Its not uncommon to do this 5 or 6 times a day, till in a gorged state with fried chicken grease running down to your elbows, you slink off into the woods to continue the journey northwards. My new friend was no different. He met a man, who would not only feed him but also feed him with food he’d seen but never tasted.
The one man in this room full of strangers that was not a stranger to my new friend was the man who had offered him a chicken sandwich. He was the camper with the cute dog, the choice campsite, and the marvelous taste in campgrounds. And through the process of building trust, aimed at feeding the stomach – he told his story. He spoke of his misfortunes, he spoke of his substance abuse, he spoke in a watershed moment that was a combination of catharsis and confession. It was an odd blending of victim and victor, of ending and beginning. His time in the wilderness both physically and spiritually were being directed towards a compassionate ear, which having heard the story of the can-with-no-can-opener, knew that this man needed more than a chicken sandwich. He needed the Lord.
Its always funny to me when I hear of these intricate stories of how the Holy Spirit moves lives in criss-crossing patterns that we tend to call “fate”, or “luck”, or “serendipity”. That criss-crossing was no accident and it literally saved that man’s life in multiple dimensions. He went on to check himself into the hospital rather than die a victim in the mountains. He chose to accept the Bible that the man with the chicken sandwich felt so moved to go and leave in the hiker’s truck. He chose to accept the food that the camper offered his spirit: “have you thought about asking the Lord into your heart”? A bold and crazy question that was asked in perfect sincerity. A question that in today's world only a fool would ask. A question that was perfectly timed, perfectly appropriate and perfectly balanced to change what was a death-spiral into a thing of beauty.
A funny thing about the physical diminishing of cellular structure in the human body; it induces activity from other systems; one is the nervous system the other is known as the limbic system. Within those systems of action-reaction type physiological activity, those drying and damaged cells send a message to the thalamus, which then lets you know that you hurt. Your legs feel pain, your hips hurt, you knee swells, and your stomach and head are on fire. All of these signals mean something; physiologically they mean you’re on the road to dying. Spiritually, they mean you may be on the road to healing. My new friend was on the road to healing and that obscene question was the starting point. He accepted Jesus in a way that made Him not only tangible but also essential, he learned that not until you’re broken are you healed.
He spoke of standing up after the prayer of acceptance, he spoke of standing and feeling no pain – it simply no longer “was”. The demons were vexed but not gone, they were now to be challenged by hope. His story on this morning gave me hope; it gave me the realization that meeting him was no accident, no convenient fate, no serendipitous and lucky collision. His being there at that point, sitting next to me was fully intentional and it scared me to death.
His discussion of his victim’s walk “into the wild” resonated in my soul with an alarming clarity. How many times this week had I hoped for a personal, convenient victimization? A quick snap-of-the-neck in a tragic accident? Perhaps a speedy death from some bizarre aneurism while swimming and I’d be free of the pain and grind of watching Bethany as she seems to decline, from watching Sherry slowly die from the stress-with-little-relief of her life? I had even gone so far as to wear my ID bracelet on my wrist as I got into the pool so that they could identify the body quicker (not much space for a driver’s license in a Speedo!). His story was my story; the alcohol, the pills, the pain, add with it the stress we feel as a couple and his story is indeed, all ours.
At the end of our time together, we all had the chance to pray over this newfound friend. We prayed just as the guys had done for me only weeks earlier and the blessing that came from that then, carried the power to sustain me through my trials. The blessing now was being extended to another and now I was laying hands on him, praying on his behalf, praying that “evening wolves” of doubt, fear, temptation and confusion, (all hungry after an unproductive day and desperately hunting before nightfall), be sent off in the name of a loving God thus enabling this man to continue growing.