They Belong to Him
by Cindy Bryan
Rod Richardson is passionate about Corvettes. He’s been driving them (and reading about them and dreaming about them…) for years. Even Rod's "cars are all the same" wife, Arlene, finally joined the ranks of the Corvette faithful. So, when Arlene’s business partner bought a new black Z06, Rod naturally asked to take it for a spin. He and a friend, Pam, hopped in and took off down the rural back roads of Alabama. It was a ride that would change his life, and his passions, forever.
Forty minutes later, the car lurched violently off the road and catapulted up a ten foot embankment. The airborne vehicle tore through yards of small trees and branches before plummeting headlong into a large oak and falling twelve feet to the ground in a sickening conclusion to a joy ride gone terribly wrong. It was the day before Thanksgiving, November 21, 2001.
The first person to arrive after the accident found Rod sitting against the car, struggling to breathe. Pam, still buckled into the passenger seat, was dead.
Rod was taken to the nearby community hospital. When Arlene arrived, she was comforted with the news that, though cut and bruised, he had no broken bones. He was transferred to a larger hospital where, in a mind-numbing turnabout, doctors shocked Arlene with the news that Rod actually had many broken bones - hip, sternum, 43 pieces of ribs, crushed kidneys, Liver, Spleen, collar bone, large amounts of glass embedded in his head—including the C-2 and 3 vertebras in his neck were shattered. With several life threatening injuries looming over him, her husband of 28 years would almost certainly die.
Rod’s family waited and prayed day after day, enduring the knowledge that he could die any moment. Arlene was numb from anxiety and exhaustion. She put the funeral home on speed dial, but clung to the hope she wouldn't need to use it.
For three weeks Rod lay motionless in traction. Then came a frightening and delicate operation to repair the broken vertebra. But, the surgery didn’t work. On December 21, surgeons sliced open the back of Rod’s neck yet again, for the second time, this time drilling eight screws into his skull, two 44 mm rods into his neck and spine and wrapped in piano wire praying it would hold.
Rod’s broken neck finally started to heal, along with his other injuries, and he began the long process of physical recovery. His emotional recovery would take much longer.
Five months after the wreck, I sat in Rod’s living room on a rich brown leather sofa as he told me his story. His home has a palpable personality. Outside—horse stables and roping arena, several friendly dogs, two Corvettes… Inside, the walls are adorned with drawings of horses and cowboys, a longhorn skull, photos of Rod’s family, and one of himself in a business suit. Over the fireplace crouches an entire mounted bobcat that once tried to attack him in a tree stand. (Guess who won?)
Rod is not easily quantified. He’s been a rock and roll musician, casket salesman, Fortune 200 executive in the heavy duty industry, and horse trainer. He is charismatic, passionate, and he loves the Lord with a John the Baptist kind of zeal that offends some, but leads others to salvation.
Most notably, Rod is a fighter. He’s been waging war with life’s challenges since his dad died when he was just nine years old. He seems to look for conflicts, maybe even create them, just so he can fight. But, the fight against death was different than any other battle Rod has faced.
The last thing he remembers about November 21 is looking at the right front wheel of the new Corvette. He doesn’t remember the accident, driving the car, or where they were going. He has little memory of the weeks in the hospital. While those who love him waited and prayed, Rod was in paradise, and he didn’t want to come back.
He says he found himself in a sandy, flat valley surrounded by craggy mountains with short bush-like trees. The sun was piercing and hot, but there was a light cool wind. On hands and knees in the warm loamy soil, holding a cup of peas, Rod would stick his finger into the ground, drop a pea in the hole, cover it up and do it again.
There was someone else there, too. He was also on his hands and knees, planting peas. He worked more slowly than Rod, and, every now and then, Rod bumped into him.
Rod vividly remembers how calm and peaceful he felt in that valley. He was immersed in love and well being. For the first time in his varied and colorful life, Rod Richardson was totally content.
Eventually, though, he began to feel guilty for that contentment. He said, “Well, I guess I’d better go. My kids are going to be worried about me.” Rod didn’t know that he was in the hospital, or that his neck was broken. He just knew that he wasn’t near his family.
Without stopping his work, the other man said, “No, you don’t have to go.”
“Yeah, I do. I’ve got to get back to my kids.”
“They don’t belong to you. They belong to him.”
Startled, Rod argued, “Well, I need to get back to my wife.”
“She belongs to him, too.”
Rod’s temper began to rise. He had made all of his own decisions since he left home at fifteen. Was he being held in this place against his will? He demanded, “Wait a minute, don’t I get any say in this?”
“Not really, because you belong to him, too.” With those words the man turned and looked at Rod, who now stared back in awe—for he immediately knew that he was looking into the face of Christ.
On hands and knees in the soil of paradise, Rod watched as a bead of sweat dripped off the end of his Savior’s nose.
In a rush, Rod realized where he was, and that he was, indeed going back home. He turned back to look back at the peas he'd been planting. It was a stunning sight. Row after row of hundreds and thousands of little pea plants.
The next thing he knew, Rod woke up in the hospital, and for the first time became aware that he was in tremendous pain.
Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and John all tell of visionary encounters with the Lord. In their biblical accounts they speak unambiguously—as witnesses, rather than dreamers. Rod talks about meeting Jesus with the same clarity and fervor as those beloved prophets. What does he say to people who claim his experience was a dream or hallucination? He just tells them his story. In fact, he tells everyone who will listen.
He describes Christ in detail: black beard, shoulder length brownish black hair, dark skin, brown eyes, high cheek bones. He wore a short tan colored tunic, tied at the waist; he was barefooted. Tears fall from Rod’s anguished eyes each time he recalls Jesus’ face. He wants to be back in that valley so intensely you can feel it. Rod knows without a doubt that he was in the presence of the Lord. Arlene knows it, too.
She says when Rod came out of the hospital he was different. His temperament had changed—his anger, diminished. There was a spirituality about him that had never been there before, though he’d been a Christian all his life. When Rod touched her, Arlene could feel the love of God radiating from her husband. They reconnected as husband and wife, and began to sew up some of the tears in the fabric of their 28 years of life together.
Why would Christ invite Rod to Paradise… to plant peas? It's because a lesson he learned in Vacation Bible School. Plant a pea in a cup of dirt, water it every day, and watch for a little plant to sprout. It's about taking a childlike approach to Christian witness.
Rod believes it isn’t the super spiritual experiences that bring people to the foot of the cross, but more often the simple, small words of testimony that will grow in people’s lives. But, he admits that there have been plenty of times when he’s tried to rush ahead of Christ. Planting peas with Jesus was an affirmation and an admonition. Keep on planting one pea at a time, but slow down, take a little more care. Most of all, believe as a child.
The words, “They belong to him,” made a profound impression. “Christ released me from dominating, or trying to control or provide for the safety of the people I love. He is in control. And, I belong to Him, too. He’s not going to let anything happen to me, and if it does, it’s going to be the right thing.”
Rod preaches a message of tolerance these days. He says that no matter how angry he is at someone, he can’t be too critical, because that person belongs to God. “How many parents do you know who would tolerate you criticizing their children? God’s the same way. He doesn’t want you talking bad about His kids.”
Rod still has a lot of healing to do. He’s in constant pain, and struggles with limited mobility. He grieves the loss of his friend, and aches with guilt over her death. He searches in earnest for the reason he was spared and Pam was not. Rod is still very much a fighter, but now most of his battles are within. Yet, he thanks God for breaking his neck and allowing him to meet Christ in Paradise; for the chance to begin again with his family; for giving him a testimony that makes a difference in people’s lives.
I asked Rod what he thinks God wants others to learn from his experience. “Well, to begin with,” he said, “that heaven is real. To share as a little child—openly with all of your heart. That every single human being on the face of the earth: the ones you love and the ones you hate; the ones who run for office and the ones who vote; the pedophiles and the homosexuals; the preachers and the parishioners… They all belong to Him. It’s just a matter of believing.” And to everyone who hears or reads his story, Rod says, “You belong to Him, too.”