On May 26, 2018, I had an accident that would forever change my life. I attempted to ski from the summit of Mt. Hood (in Oregon) and ended up falling about 450 feet to what should have been my imminent death. A 10-hour rescue, involving about thirty individuals from five different organizations, and a week-long hospital stay later, my life trajectory had taken a serious turn.
I was 35 years old. A year prior I had just accepted the lead pastor position of the church my father led for 35 years. If I am being completely honest, I think I was feeling as if I had finally “arrived.” Stability had finally entered my life, and the future seemed hopeful and bright. While I never had aspirations of pastoring a large church, I did have a big vision for seeing God’s kingdom grow in unique and awesome ways in our community and in the neighborhoods that make up what is known as “The Peninsula” or more broadly “North Portland.” In this vision, our small urban church, positioned strategically in many different ways, was going to play a critical role in what God wanted to do.
Then I fell from the top of the mountain. My accident was the culmination to a year of unexpected turns. The specific vision I had been given for our small church was to give ourselves away, and I was to help lead the way in cultivating something new and awesome in our community. We were going to give of ourselves financially to specific ministries and organizations doing good stuff in North Portland.
Instead, we had a pillar in our church go home to meet Jesus, we had some married couples divorce, we had a number of leaders leave to help lead other churches (which was awesome but really hard too), as well as an array of other dismal things happen. I was trying to regain control of everything that had happened within and around the church. And then, unexpectedly, I found myself lying on the side of a mountain not able to do anything. I will never forget the feeling I had of complete and utter dependence on others. My body was badly broken, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was absolutely no way I could get myself down from the mountain, nothing I could do to fix it.
In the weeks that followed I reflected a lot on surrender and control. I had a younger brother who had died in a tragic ski accident 12 years prior. After my fall, the first thing I asked my mom was, “Why do I get to survive, but he did not?” My heart was overwhelmed with gratitude, and I believed there was absolutely no way I could have survived that fall apart from God’s supernatural hand of protection. But then, of course, I thought of all those other people who have had similar falls and did not make it. Does God love me more? Why did he protect me and not them? Certainly, I was not any more special than others who did not survive falls similar to mine. These kind of questions get us nowhere, and I walked away from this experience with gratitude. I have no idea how or why God operates, and I was not going to try to figure it out. Instead, I resolved to simply take the gift of life I was awarded and steward it well.
Well, that resolve ended up being short lived. About three months after the accident I began to think about ways in which I could end my life. I entered into a dark depression, and I lost all drive to live. My ankle had been shattered and for three months I was not able to have any weight on it. When I finally began physical therapy and started to learn how to walk again I became so frustrated and the realization began to set in that my body was never going to be the same. I was never again going to be the guy who had his skis on at the summit of Mt. Hood, preparing to make his descent. And that stung.
With God’s grace, and with the loving grace of my wife and supportive friends I was able to journey through depression and thoughts of suicide. This experience has opened my eyes to the reality that faces so many people every day and has challenged me in how I view depression. It is not merely something that we need to “fix” and then move on with our lives. Rather it is an opportunity for us to be real and authentic and experience grace from a myriad of different sources.
As winter rolled around, just about six months after my accident, my surgeon approved me to go skiing again. He was not sure if I would be able to get my foot into the boot, but assured me that if I managed that, then the ski boot would serve as a great support for my bad foot. Being as determined as I am, I enjoyed a number of great ski days on the very mountain that almost took my life. You would think that skiing again would help with all the stuff going on in my head. And it did to some extent, but there were still things missing. My life would yet take another turn.
Hard conversations and foggy days
Between six to nine months after the accident, my family took a brutal hit. I behaved toward my wife in shameful and sinful ways. I treated her like garbage and felt as if our relationship was slipping away. We had frank conversations and for the first time in our fifteen years of marriage divorce was not off the table. (As a side note, this realization was probably one of the best things that could have happened for us because it made us both keenly aware of the need to proactively and intentionally fight for our marriage.) I acted in ways toward my three daughters that were not Christlike. I found myself yelling more frequently and became angrier more quickly. And then in the middle of this, as if God has a real sense of humor, we received a placement for two foster children in our home. In some ways this was a distraction, in others it merely added to the chaos, and yet through all of it I think Jesus’ presence was experienced.
All of this was happening at the same time I was trying to lead our small urban church in helping to grow God’s kingdom in our community. I am continuing to learn that while you may think you have hit rock bottom, there is always more. During this time, I led our church through a 12-week sermon series entitled “Spirituality and the 12-Steps of AA.” Personally, I found myself over and over coming back to the first step, “I have admitted I am powerless . . . ”
As I reflect back on my life I see how God has tried to bring me to this point time after time again. He uses life to remind us of our powerlessness and he invites us to a place of deeper surrender. It is here that he wants to completely purify us and sanctify us through. As a Wesleyan pastor I have known this from a theological understanding, but when I experience repeatedly being completely powerless this takes on a new meaning and understanding. When I find myself at the bottom over and over again I am actually forced to admit powerlessness and experience grace in an actual real way, not just a theoretical way. So much of the language we use around purity and holiness and sanctification is about a willful choice. I am learning that in this “choice” we are actually still hanging on and refusing to accept our complete powerlessness. We have a hard time letting go. I am not referring to letting go of all the “sin” in our lives or all the bad stuff we do. I am talking about letting go of our expectations. Letting go of making sure our church is successful. Letting go of needing to control the outcome of things. Letting go of being a good Christian. Letting go of what other people think of us. Letting go of having to have things figured out. Letting go of needing to be a good husband or father. Letting go of trying to be a good pastor. Letting go of everything.
At the one-year mark of my accident I found myself somewhat apathetic. I was meeting with my spiritual director and he said, “Josh, it appears to me that you are currently living in a fog.” I was not really depressed, I was not in a dark place, but I also was not real happy and joyful. Home life was ok, but at times felt chaotic. My body continued to hurt, but I was able to still be somewhat athletic. But the fogginess was apparent to others and quickly became apparent to me. My spiritual director invited me to do a pseudo retreat with him using The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I am learning on a deeper level what it means to become “indifferent to all created things” and live in such a way that “praises, reveres and serves God.”
Nearly a year and a half after my accident, I have a renewed outlook on life. I have lived more life in the past 18 months than all the years preceding me. I continue to pastor our small urban church and continue to lead in ways I feel God calling us and directing us toward. God has and continues to use my story to inspire others and to draw people into his kingdom, but more than all of that I am continuing to learn to let go. I am continuing to learn what it looks like for us as a church to give ourselves away and to be obedient. God has not asked us or called us to be successful but instead has just asked us to be obedient and faithful to him.
My body continues to hurt. Every morning it takes a while before I can fully walk on my foot. Activities like soccer, basketball and running will probably never be a part of my life again. However, I have discovered a new love of mountain and road biking. My body responds well to that kind of activity. I also continue to enjoy skiing. As I look out my office window in Portland, Oregon, and watch the rain come down, I am reminded that snow in the mountains is just around the corner. I am looking forward to a great upcoming ski season.
Life is still hard. I still sometimes get angry with my children and my spouse. I still struggle with letting go of certain things. But in the midst of all of this I am living in a grace that I never knew existed. I find myself holding my wife a little tighter and longer and looking for ways in which I can be a more present father in the lives of my daughters. We continue to be a foster family and use this as a real way to show God’s love to our community. I feel and experience God’s love in ways never before experienced. My life’s mission continues to be to live for the glory and honor and praise of Jesus in all I do whatever this might look like. One day at a time and one foot after the other.
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Rev. Josh Hawk serves as pastor at St. Johns Wesleyan Church in Portland, Oregon.