Columnists > Judgment Calls

The accident

In trials, God's interest is sanctification

Issue: "Linda Chavez," Jan. 20, 2001

I have slipped through on the coattails of many a yellow light, but it wasn't one of those. This glowing orb was solid red, and I just plain didn't see it. Next thing I knew my front end was fused in unholy matrimony with that of a Jeep Wrangler. It was 7:15 on a Saturday evening, Dec.16, I noted on the clock.

There are only two times after an accident: time before, time after, a blinding impact the wedge between. I had the presence of mind to be cognizant, even in the first instant, of the fact that history would take a different turn from here on in. Robert Frost, the road not taken, and all that: the unending ripples of pure contingent act, of choices of no particular ethical momentousness.

For if this new trouble on my doorstep was the result of some fault, some sin (which I grant it must be), I have been guilty of more egregious omissions and commissions in my life-no doubt, on that same day!-which have seemed to go unnoted by man and God alike. Funny that this one I will pay for through the nose.

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Knowing myself to be, in Mark Twain's observation, not bright enough to carry out a sustained and methodical lie, I opted for the truth and blurted to the man who met me halfway across the debris that I was totally at fault. For his part, he played the gentleman, comporting himself with the magnanimity of the party who knows he's in the right. I reached into my pocket for a pen and found instead the rabbit's foot my 6-year-old had asked me to hold that very morning, noting the irony of wrecking my car on the only day in my life that I've harbored a good luck charm. Apart from that, I was aware only of a mixed annoyance and embarrassment welling up in me, of my middle-aged self in the eyes of this thirtyish yuppie male, bringing fresh evidence to the old stereotype about women drivers.

Officer Costello, promptly on the scene, is the force's expert sniper and had been privileged to be among the motorcycle cavalcade for the Republican convention in August, his photo snapped with George W. himself. This and other such interesting things I learned in the squad car on the ride to police headquarters, my crumpled van being, even as we spoke, en route to the impoundment lot courtesy of Ed Bowe's towing service. (In a split-second decision, I left the recent issue of WORLD on the front passenger seat when scooping up the rest of my belongings, lacking a tract or other evangelistic tool.)

The officer was a specialist in "accident reconstruction," which, it turned out, was not about piecing together mangled fenders but clues. I asked him if he would have been able to reconstruct my guilt in the mishap if I had lied about the red light. He said no.

I was doing some "reconstruction" of my own now, as people are wont to do just after accidents or deaths, wherein the psyche tries to make sense of a brand new status, or perhaps to alter the unalterable outcome by continuous replaying of the hours that led up to it, with strategic alterations. Was this punishment? What if I hadn't thrown out that seminary fundraising letter but had stopped to write a check? That would have backed up everything the rest of the day by two minutes and changed the course of history. For the sake of 10 dollars I'm out 10 grand now: See how my greed is punished. Or was I at the wrong place, "out of God's will," on that road on that night? Is there a prompting of the Spirit I ignored somewhere along the line that would have sent me elsewhere, someplace safe?

This is ridiculous! Why look for divine communication in this event any more than in the numberless other twists and turns of the hours that preceded it? What is a fender-bender to God? Is it necessarily any more fraught with speech than the rebuke of a friend, or a gently soothing breeze?

In the end, we go off to bed with the questions dangling. We know there are no accidents in God's providence. What we must be humble about is saying what those non-accidents mean. One thing alone is certain: God is not so interested that I be rich or poor; He is interested that I be sanctified. Let that be the filter of all experience.


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