All right then.
This would have been during a summer in the mid-'80s, when I was about 15. Our church youth group had planned a camping trip which involved hiking up into a remote section of the high Uintas for a few days, and we were all pushing along at varying speeds. As usual, I was taking up the rear, just ambling along, captivated by the sight of evergreens and boulders and listening to birds and breathing in big draughts of crisp mountain air. So I was one of the very last people to reach the log.
The fallen log was the only nearby bridge spanning the thirty-foot-wide river we needed to cross to get to our campsite. Ordinarily the log would have been more than sufficient for our group's needs, but local conditions had changed a bit since the youth leaders had gone up to check the trail a few weeks before. Acres of melting snow from the mountains had swelled the river, and it was both deeper and faster-moving than expected, with white plumes of water dashing against the river rocks and gushing right over the log's midpoint. Every member of the party lined up to cross the log bridge, slowly, going single-file. I wasn't really concerned about it. After all, I knew I could handle water well enough.
And then, the moment I put my foot up on the log, I got one of those feelings.
I guess you could call them premonitions. I don't get them very often, but I've learned to pay attention to them, because they're always important. Sometimes the feeling is positive, as when I look around a potential house for rent and I have a sudden, deep, comforting conviction that I've found the right place to live. Or when I first meet someone and instantly know that person is going to be a friend. I had a similar sense of rightness when Captain Midnight and I were dating. But sometimes... well, sometimes it's a tense, dreadful, don't-go-down-that-alley feeling welling up like dark water in the pit of my stomach. I don't always know what's going down, but I know it's going to be bad.
This time I knew what was going to happen. At some point during the crossing, I was going to lose my balance, fall off the log and into the river. The sensation was so strong that I could almost see it. I balked and backed away from the log, but one of the youth leaders chided me -- there were other people behind me waiting their turn to cross, she said; if I went slowly and carefully, I'd get to the other side just fine.
So I did the dumb thing, ignored the feeling and got up onto the log. I turned and faced upstream, fighting the part of my brain that was still clamoring to abort the mission, and slowly began inching my way across, crablike -- right foot first, then left foot sliding up beside it. And I was actually getting to the point where the logical part of my brain was taking the lead, telling me it would be just fine, when I tried spanning the spot where water was coming up and over the log. I misjudged the distance, put my foot down in a slippery place, and as if on cue, lost my footing and fell forward and upstream into the river. The current immediately dragged me underneath the log, where my backpack snagged on a bit of broken branch. I was pinned underwater.
My head was maybe a foot below the surface -- close enough to be able to see blurry outlines of the other hikers staring down at me in mute shock -- but I couldn't pull myself back up against the strength of the current. I panicked and thrashed around, trying to get free, but the backpack was still firmly attached to the log. I clawed at my backpack's front clasp, trying to open it, but I couldn't get it loose. I could feel my lungs running out of air. For just a moment I had a brief flash of irony -- here I was, a member of the high school swim team, about to drown.
I didn't expect it -- the realization of impending death -- to be so mundanely calm and factual, as in Oh, it's 10:15 already or We're all out of milk or Here's the bus. There was nothing else I could do. I was still pinned. My air was almost gone. No one above me seemed to be making any attempt at rescue. My lungs would fill with water, my heart would come to a stop, and the part that was me would flicker and go out.
But I wanted to live. And out of that desire to live came -- not exactly a prayer, because that would suggest I was still capable of ordering my thoughts while moments from death, but a sudden spasm of desire: PLEASEdontletmedie
And a surge of water came beneath the log and twisted my body around in such a way that my backpack finally came unstuck, and I was pushed under the log and went shooting downstream, gasping and flailing in the current and being dashed against the rocks. Somehow I dog-paddled my way to the other side of the river, hauled myself out on the bank and lay there panting for a while.
The youth leaders rushed over to check on me. After assuring them I was all right, and after a quick change behind a boulder (from wet dirty clothes into equally wet clean clothes), I finished the hike. Later that night a would-be good-deed-doer built a roaring fire, rigged up a clothesline and hung my brand-new sopping wet jeans directly over the blaze. The next morning, the best adjective to describe the waistband of my jeans was "crispy;" I tried using my belt loops to hike up my Levis, and they promptly snapped off in my fingers. But I reasoned that a dead pair of jeans was a small price to pay for being alive.
* * *
Depending on what you believe, you could parse my brush with death a number of ways. You could say that realization of my coming death impelled me to move in strange ways I later attributed to a freak surge in the current. You could say that the broken branch finally gave way at an opportune moment. You could say that even if the surge in the current came through to free me from my spot pinned under the log, it was one of those happenstance things, and that I just happened to be fortunate that it occurred when it did. There are probably dozens of ways to explain away the confluence of my mind's desperate request for life and the arrival of something that preserved it.
This is why I say that faith is a matter of choosing to believe. I can't prove that there is a God, or that we are His children, or that He hears and answers our prayers. I can't even prove that the feelings I sometimes have come from anywhere other than my own mind -- although I've come to realize that I ignore them at my own peril. I can't prove any of these things. But I choose to believe in them, and I choose to make decisions based on these beliefs. And although I constantly go through experiences that push my belief in different directions -- sometimes toward faith, sometimes away from it -- the general current bears me toward a continuing, strengthening belief that God exists, is aware of me, loves me and wants to help me become a better person.
Everyone dies. There will probably come a day in the future when I stare death down again, and say another prayer for deliverance, and the answer comes back: Sorry, kiddo, but this is your time to go. But until then, I have reason to be grateful for every day I get to be alive, even the days when crappy things happen. And I choose to believe that I am alive at all thanks to the being who has created me from the beginning, and is preserving me from day to day by lending me breath. I choose to believe because it gives my body strength, it gives my life purpose, and it gives my soul joy.