Most people who know me know I died on January 18, 1989, went to heaven, and was prayed back to earth about ninety minutes later; however, many don’t know the rest of the story—a part I didn’t know until more than a year afterward. One powerful element came out when I ate at a Chinese restaurant with Dick and Anita Onerecker.
We had just come from church, where Dick served as the senior pastor. They had invited me to preach. My first encounter with Dick and Anita had been in the piney woods of East Texas. They were part of a leadership team for a church growth conference that ended on a Wednesday.
On a cold, rain-slicked rural road a few miles from the gates of the retreat center, a tractor-trailer truck crossed the center stripe of the two-lane highway on a bridge over Lake Livingston, and hit me head-on. I was killed instantly. The report stated, “Dead on the scene,” and they summoned the coroner. Although the accident involved three cars, there were no serious injuries to the other people.
Because of the accident, traffic backed up in both directions. Dick and Anita also headed home from the conference. They had stopped for take-out coffee, and were half-a-mile from the accident. With so many cars backed up, they left their car and walked to the scene of the accident to see if they could be of assistance. Anita gave her hot coffee to an elderly man in one of the other accident vehicles. Dick sought out the emergency medical technicians. After Dick identified himself, one EMT said, “The man in the red car is dead; several people are badly shaken up, but not seriously hurt.”
Weeks after the accident, Dick told me, “The Lord spoke to me in a clear voice: ‘Pray for the man in the red car.’ ”
When Dick asked permission to get under the tarp that now covered my red Escort, an EMT refused. “The demolished car is too gruesome.” Dick persisted and the man relented. Despite the misty rain, Dick pulled back the tarp and crawled inside my Escort. He found my horribly mangled body slumped in the front seat. He prayed desperately for me, not knowing at that time for whom he was praying.
Even my intimate friends would not have recognized me. Both legs were crushed, one was severed. So was my left arm. My chest was impaled by the steering wheel. In addition to obvious wounds, I was bleeding from the ears and eyes. My best recollection of what I heard, and the one I related to Dick’s church, was that Dick had taken hold of my only intact limb, my right hand, and prayed fervently and urgently. He prayed that I would live and be delivered from internal injuries. He paused a few times and sang hymns.
At one point he began singing, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I started to sing with Dick. At the shock of hearing my singing with him, he scurried from under the tarp and yelled, “The man is alive!” Once again, he crawled under the tarp and continued to pray— with even more intensity. We continued to sing while firefighters, now on the scene, tried to extricate me. I was unaware of the activity, so I can only report what Dick and others told me. I had been driving along Texas Highway 19 on my way to lead a Wednesday prayer service at our church in Alvin, a suburb of Houston.
On the bridge above Lake Livingston, a huge truck came at me. In my next moment of consciousness I was in the darkness, singing hymns along with a voice I didn’t recognize. The powerful hand that gripped mine infused me with strength, encouragement, and the will to survive. More than a year passed after my ordeal, and most of that time I was in a hospital bed and underwent sixteen surgeries (more would follow). Excruciating pain filled my body constantly. Because of God’s grace I slowly recovered and within a year I was able to preach at Dick’s church.
I wore heavy leg braces and was still in agony, but I was alive and able to stand at the pulpit of the man who had prayed me back to life. I told Dick’s congregation about their pastor’s fervent prayers, our hymn singing in the wrecked car, and his strong hand that supported me and infused me with courage to hold on. Many people cried that day—and tears came to my own eyes as I relived that experience.
While we ate lunch after the worship service, Anita smiled and leaned toward me. “I need to correct something you said in the pul- pit this morning.” I returned her smile but I thought, that’s exactly what every preacher doesn’t want to hear. “I enjoyed hearing your testimony this morning. I know it wasn’t easy for you—” “No, it wasn’t.” “There’s just one thing. The part where you talked about Dick holding your hand and praying for you—” I nodded. “That didn’t happen.” “I have many gaps in my memory, Anita, and some of my facts come from those who were there. But of one thing I am absolutely positive. I vividly remember holding his hand. That’s what inspired me to hold on. I remember—” “You were holding a hand as Dick prayed.” She peered intently at me. “But it wasn’t Dick’s hand.” I don’t know if I protested or stared silently. “But how—” “No one could have reached your hand while you were trapped inside your car. You were twisted so far to the right that your right hand was actually on the floor of the passenger’s side.” She paused and I nodded. “Dick reached through the back window of your car.” “That’s correct and—” “Dick placed his right arm between the front seats and your right shoulder—your unbroken arm.” “That’s right—” “Your right hand was beyond Dick’s reach.”
I stared at her uncomprehendingly. “But I remember the hand—it was so powerful. I know a hand grasped mine. I drew enormous strength and help from that hand. It gave me the power to hang on.” “There was a hand all right.” She paused and added, “But it wasn’t Dick’s.”
“If it wasn’t Dick’s hand, whose hand was it?” “I believe you know.” Just then I understood. God sent one of His ministering spirits—an angel—not only to hold my hand but also to infuse me with a will to live. There had been three of us inside that demolished car. It had been a heavenly trio.