My Brush with Death

I am not a spooky person. I promise not to turn this into a story about the light at the end of the tunnel or about waking up in my interpretation of Heaven and then coming back to Earth to enlighten you (so I can write a book or be on TV). No, this will be a very matter-of-fact story--a story about my only face-to-face confrontation with my mortality. Don't get me wrong, I could have died any day of my life. Death could be around any corner for us; but my response to that is not to live in fear, but rather to live by faith. This story is not overly dramatic, but it was a pretty big deal to me, since it was me that almost died.

I was back home in Minnesota on summer break from college. It was 2004 (making me 20), and my friends and I decided to have some fun. One of my friend's parents owned a house on a lake in Minnesota (that really narrows it down, huh?). The lake had an island in it that made a cool place to hang out or camp. It was a short drive outside the Twin Cities, so we set a date and made camping plans.

I love camping. I don't like the cold or wet aspects of it, but the rest of it is great! My Dad and I camped almost every summer in my adolescent and early teen years. And by camped, I mean camped. No RV hookups or electricity nonsense. We would head out to the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming and drive down dirt roads until we found a clearing to pitch our tent. We made fires, shot things (that may or may not have been living prior to being shot), hiked, detonated explosives, and took a bunch of pictures of the natural beauty. Those are some of my best memories from childhood. So when I was offered a chance to camp out under the stars, I was in.

My friend's parents owned a pontoon boat that we used to get out to the island. We loaded up our gear and headed for some mid-summer Minnesotan adventure. If you've been to Minnesota in the summer, you know it's a beautiful place (except for mosquitoes). We pitched our tents and started the camping experience--fires, food, and fooling around. I was 20 and quite confident in my physical abilities. After all, I played college basketball, so I must have been invincible, right? Of course.

One of the fun things we did was swim. We would take the pontoon out on the water, dive, and see what kind of trouble we could find. It was harmless really. Then things got competitive. We started a simple game. One guy would throw a flip flop as far as he could, and the opponent would have to swim to the flip flop and swim back to the boat. And being the geniuses that we were, we had been gorging on pasta, meat, and s'mores all day; so we thought intense swimming would be a good follow up. Did they have Darwin awards back then? We played that game for awhile, but there was one detail that we had overlooked.

The pontoon had a pretty dismal anchor, and we were in decently deep water. We thought we were anchored, but we weren't. It was windy--very windy. It was a nice hot blustery day and swimming felt good. One of my buddies chucked that flip flop directly into the wind, and I dove in to get it. I swam, but I was getting tired. I got to the flip flop and turned around to head back.

Have you ever pushed your body to the point of physical failure? Have you ever involuntarily fallen down from exhaustion? Well, at this point in my life, neither had I. But something peculiar happened that day as I swam back to the boat. My body failed. I pushed my muscles to do more, and they rebelled. The problem wasn't the water, it was the boat. I was swimming toward a moving target. I swam, but it didn't get closer. I got scared, so I did the calm thing to do. I stopped swimming, tread water, and started yelling at the guys to bring the boat around to get me. I was scared enough to accept failure. But remember the wind? Wind is loud. They couldn't really hear me that well. They thought I was joking or being stupid. The next five minutes lasted an eternity. I could not keep my body above water. 

I went under once. I will never forget looking upward from about a foot under water and seeing the sun shining in the sky through the ripples of water. It was so quiet under there. I mustered up some will power and came back to the surface. Then I was under again. It was a fight against gravity and muscle fatigue. I don't recall how many times I went down and came back up, but it was at least three or four. I have to be honest. My life did not flash before my eyes. There were no angels that appeared to talk to me and tell me to reflect on my life; but there was the sharp and dominating thought that resonated in my mind--"I will not see tomorrow."

I'm writing this, so you know that was not my day to die. My friends brought the boat close enough for one of the guys to swim to me and bring a life saver (aptly-named). I did not flail or fight--my body had nothing left. I was dead weight, but I was conscious. They pulled me on to the flat surface of the pontoon, and I laid there almost lifeless--just breathing. I had not inhaled much water thankfully. They drove the boat back to the island and by that time I was talking. I told them to let me lay there for awhile. They told me later that my eyes had glazed over, so when I talked to them I wasn't focusing my eyes on them. I remember very little of that. I don't know how long I laid there, but eventually I made it to my tent and fell asleep. That night was interesting. I vomited several times over the next 10-12 hours. 

I felt terrible the next day, but I was happy just to be alive. My friends took pretty good care of me, but still found some time to make fun of me. It was funny because I was alive. Windy weather and a flip flop had nearly ended my life. But isn't that often how life ends--unexpectedly and even strangely. We live our lives on a very thin tightrope, and any disturbance can make mortality a reality. I do not mock death, or flippantly discuss it to divert from the fact that I fear it; but I am willing to accept that I am not exempt from it. And neither are you. Making mockery of humanity's most gruesome reality is, in my opinion, a pitiful attempt to mask the fact that all of us are scared to face death. It is real, and we must all consider its consequences soberly.

This experience I shared with you taught me nothing. I say that somewhat sarcastically, but really, nothing I "learned" was a revelation. They were things I already knew, but they had not yet become real to me. So instead of telling you what this experience "taught me", I will tell you about what this experience "made real to me".

#1 Sticks and stones may break your bones, but stupidity can actually kill you.

I'm not a big risk-taker, but I am certainly not advocating that we all become insurance statisticians and quote percentage likelihoods of death and decapitation prior to every event in our life. Part of life is risk, and being smart means minimizing unnecessary risk and building protections around necessary risk. Don't live in fear or be consumed by worry. However, a healthy dose of intelligence, planning, and sobriety can go a long way in preserving  your health and life. 

This is something primarily targeted at people under the age of 25 who might think they can't possibly die because they are not 80. Only people that are 80 or older die, right? However, some people stop maturing mentally at 19, so this mentality can remain well beyond the age of 25; so beware. 

How was I stupid in my story? We should have taken the situation more seriously in realizing that none of us were wearing life preservers, water can kill you, and we had just eaten a bunch of food which diverted a good portion of our blood supply to digestion. Eating and then swimming in a lake is a stupid thing to do. Duly noted.

See also "Ten Stupid Things I've Done".

#2 When God is trying to get your attention, do NOT ignore Him.

I have kept God mostly out of this story until now. This time in my life was pivotal--literally. I was pivoting around and deciding which direction I was going to take my life. God was using people and circumstances to speak to me and tell me, "I want you to seek me". I was listening sometimes and then ignoring Him sometimes. I had brushed Him off many, many times and rationalized it. If you are familiar with the story of Samson in the Bible, I treated God very similarly. If you are not familiar with the story, read about it here. I lacked the strength to kill a lion with my bare hands and single-handedly defeat an armed battalion of soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, but other than that our stories are pretty similar. No, what we had in common was a flagrant disregard for God's authority and His supreme sovereignty. We both treated God like an annoying uncle. God was not having it any longer.

This experience woke me up some. It made me realize that God put me in the lake and let me sink under the water to teach me a lesson--that my life was/is in His hands. He is in control. I can fight against Him or ignore Him if I please, but that is not the best way for me or anyone else. This experience helped me accept His control, His sovereignty, and His ability to pull me up out of the water and set my feet on dry land.

#3 I can and might die today.

It's a tough pill to swallow. It's unpleasant and smells like decaying flesh. But none of us can ignore it forever. One day or another we will face this fact. Again, the correct response is not to live in paranoia and paralyzing fear, but to live in sobriety, realizing that...

"[Your life] is even a vapor, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away." James 4:14

This blog is too short and my insight too small to delve into the consequences of realizing this fact; but it must be realized if you are going to live life how you ought to. We cannot live in denial as if we are immortal or exempt. We cannot live in the dark, thinking that death is secretly a good thing disguised as horrible. Death is an intruder and an enemy that has defiled the existence of humanity for too long; but I'm grateful I am no longer bound to fear it.

I Corinthians 15:54,55,57 So when this corruptible [body] shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal [body] shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?... But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Image credits:

Campsite image from
I think I'm invincible shirt image from
Sun from under water image from
Life saver image from
Stupidity image from
Praying man image from
Jesus on cross image from


  1. Dan I'd not heard this story before! I'm so glad it was not your time to leave us! (Did your mother know about this?)

  2. I don't recall when I told her about it, but I think I did. Thanks for commenting :)