It’s a hard truth, but it’s been the painful things in ministry that have shaped me most.
I wish it were not that way, but it is. I wish the conferences and books and teaching series had been the biggest teachers.
They’re all great things, and I appreciate them. But I suspect many are nodding in agreement, that it’s the painful – unexpected and unwanted – things , that have been the most shaping. And I also suspect that as we share those stories we can learn from, and encourage each other in the faith along the way.
Which brings me to my friend Chris.
This is me having a coffee with Chris just the other week in our favourite local cafe The Crooked Spire, a funky slice of urban in the eastern suburbs of Perth, with great coffee and amazing cronuts.
The Crooked Spire is named after the famed crooked spire of the Church of St Mary’s and All Saints in Chesterfield in the UK, which is twisted like a corkscrew due to the wood used for the spire still being green at the time it was used, and then shrinking and twisting as it aged. I remember Jill and I catching a train past it once and thinking the glass on the window was warped. Turned out the spire was.
Chris is a regular at The Crooked Spire. He makes the short journey in his motorised gopher from his apartment in the recently refurbished warehouses near the train station a couple of times a week; “keepie” cup and straw at the ready. The staff know him and there’s always a friendly “hi!”
I have known Chris now for over half of his life. He was in his late teens when I started working as a youth pastor of a local Baptist church. He was a young, intelligent, well grounded young man; quiet and somewhat shy in public, but doing well at school, from a loving church family, well on his way to his pilot’s licence. He enjoyed tennis, golf and the general outdoors. Oh, and he loved Jesus in a beautiful, solid, innocent way.
Chris and I hit it off immediately. And I made a point of countering Chris’s reticence when I first started that ministry role by putting him forward to help me at church. I’d been writing some scripts for use in youth group and church, based around two characters called Mike and Spike. Mike and Spike basically have a face-to-face conversation over a table about a topic or theme that, as the script progressed, just got crazier and more arcane, but which always had a point about Jesus at the end.
I’d written several of them before working at that church, but from the time I arrived at that church, I decided to make Chris the “Mike” character and me the “Spike”. And it was a huge hit with our young people (and the adults too!).
The skits always started the same way with a good old Aussie greeting: “G’day Mike….G’day Spike”, and then off we would go, in the direction my crazy brain had taken the script. We loved it, everyone loved it. Loved it to the point where Chris and I would start calling each other Mike and Spike when we caught up.
Chris wanted to grow as a Christian and was eager to stretch and grow in order to serve people. In fact I remember, a few weeks before Chris’s accident, him asking me after church one day, “Steve, can I watch you go up and chat with people after church so I can learn to do that better?
Ah, the accident. Or “Chris’s accident” as it became known. “Chris’s accident” became a painful watershed moment in life, for him, for his family, and for many. And for me, both as a friend and as his pastor. I loved our young people at our church, but Chris held a special place in my heart. And it was exciting watching him begin to spread his wings.
The last time I saw Chris in full health and able-bodied was the day after he’d finished his final high school exams. Done and dusted! And the relief was palpable. He was a good student and had worked hard. University was next.
Chris had left his golf clubs at my house last time we played, and flush with the freedom that finishing your last exam gives you, he’d dropped in to our place on that first, free Saturday morning to pick up his clubs and play a relaxed nine holes.
I waved him goodbye from our driveway, as he left in his little silver Hyundai Excel. It was late spring and sunny. For Chris there was golf to enjoy, followed by the 21st birthday of one of the young people from church to look forward to that night. I don’t know if you can remember those first few days after your final exams, but there’s a liberation to them that’s intoxicating.
It was the midnight phone call that shattered that liberation. That heralded the shattering of any liberation for Chris for a long time to come. I jumped, picked it up (no mobile phone for me back in the early 2000s, I was a late adopter). Midnight phone calls are never good. This one was awful.
It was one of the young women from church, crying, and talking in gasps. What with the pace of her conversation and the sleep fog in my head, I was struggling to make sense of it all. But something about Chris being in a car accident, they’re afraid he’s dead, the ambulance has just arrived. I couldn’t piece it all together, but something terrible was happening, that was for sure.
Heart pounding. Fear gripping me, I raced back to Jill who, by now, is sitting bolt upright in bed, listening in, fear-filled herself as she tries to make out from the call the who, the what, the when. All of those as yet unanswered questions determining how our lives will change after this call, alongside that reflexively selfish relief when you hear it’s not your brother, your mum, your father.
But his father, his mother, his brother, his sister! I phoned them straight away, then raced the short mile over to their house. They were all sitting ashen faced in the lounge, putting the story together and getting ready to go to the hospital.
What had happened? Hard to tell. A guy in an SUV, slightly too much to drink, slammed into the side of Chris’s little car as he edged his way out of the dark hills driveway from the party onto the main road. T-boned the car. Chris’s head bouncing off the side of the screeching missile.
We prayed. I think. I can’t even remember. Chris’s family are resilient people, and even in this deep shock and grief, seemed to be in far more control than I, whose head was spinning. They drove to the hospital and told me that they would keep me informed.
I found out the next morning after that sleepless night. It was bad. Real bad. It was a traumatic head injury. It was touch and go. Chris might not live. And if he did no one had any idea what that would be like.
I went to church that morning. Can’t believe I did. And it was a church in deep, painful grief. I was so grief-stricken I could barely stand. I loved all of our young people, but Chris? Mike and Spike? Would there ever be another “G’day Spike” again? I felt so ill-prepared. My theology was solid for sure, but as the service ended and we sang the last song, my legs buckled under me.
I felt so out of my depth. Felt so next to useless in ministry, as one after another, older congregation members came up and hugged me amidst their own tears, a young man in his early thirties who suddenly felt completely out of his depth. I realise now – after a few more scars – that this is how the body works, that that’s how God intended it; that that’s what “mourn with those who mourn” looks like. But back then, I felt I’d let the side down a little.
The days and weeks that followed were excruciating for Chris’s family. For many people. Deep grief and anguish. And still touch and go. Chris’s injury so severe that he was in a coma for weeks, then months. I remember the first time going in to see him, and of course, it’s the machines that freak you out. His heart rate is too high? Or too fast? Which one is it? And seeing him lying there, seemingly unbroken anywhere else, but his poor, poor head. I can still see that image now.
And then the rehab. Months of it. A year of it. And within that the growing realisation that Chris was never going to be the Chris he had once been. Learning to talk again. Learning to take some steps. Learning to remember. Failing to remember. It was teeth-grindingly slow watching on, visiting him in the various rehab places he’d “graduated” to.
And in the midst of it all, a family who never gave up on him despite their own grief and tiredness. Despite the shattering of hopes they had for their beautiful boy. Or more to the point, readjusting those hopes drastically. University out of the question. Flying planes out of the question. A “normal” job and network of relationships out of the question. It’s a sad fact, but with acquired brain injuries, the friendships you had, who promise to remain true, dissipate over time. Everyone else’s life moves on. Yours stays still – locked inside and unable to get out or get on with things.
I’ve often asked, “Why Chris, Lord?” And why like that? In the first traumatic months I wondered why God did not just take him, the kind, beautiful soul he is, and spare him the struggle. But I don’t feel that so much anymore. I still remember something his sister told me in the midst of it all, as Chris was learning to re-engage with the world: “The best way to think of this is that the old Chris did die, but there’s just a new Chris and we have to get to know him and help him.” And I think that’s a wonderful way to look at it.
Have I helped Chris in all of that time? Have I been as pastoral to him as I could have been? Not as much as I perhaps thought I would have. Because my life too has moved on. It’s incredible to think Chris is now older than I was when that event occurred.
Yet I have visited and spent time with him, and for a year or so in the early days spent Tuesday and Thursday mornings with him either at cafes or going out to the golf course in his wheelchair, where for a while he was able to get up slowly and use his good arm to hit a few balls.
I have coffee with him every now and then still and a good Facebook chat. And he lives independently, with some good support. Chris even runs a chess event in a local cafe in our area, which has become well known and well frequented. He’s still keen to involve himself with the lives of others.
And Chris still loves Jesus. Because of his injury he has severe memory problems, so when I told him for the umpteenth time the other week that my Dad had died last year, he looked shocked. But then he asked, “Was he a Christian when he died?” I told him he was. “Phew!!” he said, with genuine relief on his face and in his voice. It was going to be okay!! We ended that coffee session praying and reading a Psalm together, joyous in the knowledge that Jesus will make all the sad things come untrue.
Time has numbed the pain. Never taken it away from me, and I am sure not for his family. And it must be frustrating for Chris. And this year is a cross-over year. Chris will have lived post-accident, longer than he lived pre-accident. The old Chris, the fresh-faced, young man with the world at his feet, is less and less the Chris I know. Less and less the template of Chris. More and more a memory of a time when Hyundai Excels were still newish cars, not everyone carried a mobile phone, and the world was Chris’s oyster.
One of my most cherished memories of Chris is about eighteen months after his accident. He was able to talk again. Haltingly, with lots of help, but could do it. And he was starting to be able to get to church again.
So I wrote a Mike and Spike. I spent hours with Chris talking him through it, reading it, schooling him in getting some flow into the conversation so that it would sound, not exactly like the old times, but somewhere in the ballpark. Word had gotten out that we were doing a Mike and Spike at evening church. It seemed liked dozens of extras had been rounded up to witness it. And then I wheeled Chris up to the table, sorted out his script and we began:
“Gday Mike….”G’day Spike”
We stumbled and stuttered our way through the script. It took ages and some serious prompting. But we go there, and then said, as always, “See ya later Mike…See ya later Spike”. And that was it. We never did another Mike and Spike after that. It was laying the demons to rest. Never written another Mike and Spike since. Never will.
But the roar that went up when we finished! Not quite sure how to describe it. Deep, spontaneous, subterranean and joyous. And an ache! A bittersweet ache. An ache for what had been but also an ache for something more. Something that needs to be completed. An aching roar that spoke of something as yet unfulfilled; a glimpse of something that might be; that will be!
Because there’s going to be a day when the new post-accident Chris that his sister spoke of will actually be the old Chris. And what a day! When the kingdom comes, and the age-to-come arrives and the resurrection of the body begins, whatever that even looks like!
When the King himself comes in all his glory and the new creation begins. Mike and Spike will not merely talk about Jesus, they will see him! And on that day the tears that started with a phone call and have continued in various places and times since will be wiped away for good. Mourning that began with an accident seventeen years ago will be banished into eternity.
And Chris? Chris will run into the arms of the same King who said to the paralysed man in Mark’s gospel, “Pick up your mat and walk! The same King who might yet stoop so low as to whisper “G’day Mike” into Chris’s ear when he does.