Five Spiritual Lessons from a Bike Wreck, Broken Collarbone, and Nine Rib Fractures

Since turning 50, I have enjoyed getting on a road bike and completing sprint triathlons and 100-mile rides called Centuries. I say completing instead of competing because my goal is always finishing the event -- I love the challenge of training for the distances and the satisfaction of crossing the finish line at the end. The Centuries always offer an exciting day of flying along country roads with a group of friends, and then sharing a celebratory beer.

But on Saturday I ended up in the hospital instead of the beer tent. I left Richmond at 7:30 am on the Cap2Cap Century, a ride from Richmond to Williamsburg and back that I was participating in for the fifth time. Two friends and I were zipping along and enjoying the beautiful morning when one bumped the wheel of the other and fell down in front of me. At 25 miles per hour I couldn't stop or swerve. In a split second I went over my handlebars and landed flat on my back.

After four days in the ER and hospital, I have made some spiritual discoveries:

1. ACCIDENTS HAPPEN. I am a Presbyterian pastor, but I don't share the view of some of my fellow Calvinists that everything is an expression of the will of God. Some painful and destructive events are just random occurrences, and they cannot and should not be blamed on anyone. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which no one wants to suffer, and many people want to blame someone else when they do.

2. THINGS CAN ALWAYS BE WORSE. When I landed on my back, I tried to roll over and get up, but I couldn't. The pain was too intense. But as I lay in the ditch, I wiggled my toes and fingers and discovered that I hadn't hurt my spine. I was wearing a helmet, so no concussion. During my time in the hospital, a motorcyclist has died in my hometown and a half-dozen commuters have been killed on an Amtrak train. Fellow hospital patients are suffering from worse injuries and illneses, and some are transitioning to hospice. I'm hurting with a broken collarbone and nine rib fractures, but am grateful to be alive.

3. HELPERS ARE EVERYWHERE. A couple of doctors who were part of the Cap2Cap assessed me in the ditch. A ride volunteer named Dave picked up my bike and then visited me in the hospital. My physician assistant wife drove immediately to Richmond and got involved in my care. A childhood friend of my daughter is a nurse in the hospital, and has been a true angel, visiting me and advocating for me. My church staff has covered for me in my unexpected absence, and told me not to worry about life at Fairfax Presbyterian. All around me, people have "put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12).

4. LIFE IS SUFFERING. When the Buddha taught that life is suffering, he was not saying that our earthly exisrence is non-stop misery. Instead, he was reminding people that life is impermanent and ever-changing. I discovered this truth in a split second, as I went over my handlebars and quickly moved from health to injury, comfort to pain. We should not deny the reality of suffering and its presence in every life. The Celtic Christian tradition is particularly good at reminding people that all of life contains a mixture of darkness and light, suffering and joy. We cannot have one without the other.

5. MAINTAIN A SAFE FOLLOWING DISTANCE. When I ask people how they are doing day-to-day, the answer I often get is "Busy." We race around doing a endless string of activities in our workplaces, homes, schools, congregations and community groups. This rush is well illustrated by the riding I do with my cycling friends, flying down the roads while counting up the miles. Busy, busy, busy. But what if I had not been in such a rush to finish the Century? I might have avoided an accident if I had maintained a safe following distance.

These truths might not be popular, especially among people who like to stay busy and cyclists who like to travel in groups and draft behind one another. But they are insights that could only be gained by several days in a ditch, ER and hospital -- my own school of hard knocks.