EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is from Mr. Wikstrom's recent sermon
at Seattle's Magnolia Presbyterian Church. A film about Brom's life
is in pre-production in Hollywood.
There But for the
Grace of God
By Brom Wikstrom
thought occurs to me that many people have shared that sentiment in
regard to my life in the same way I would to someone who is homeless,
breathes with a respirator or who is blind. But I know that the grace
of God is infinite and I feel honored to share the story of how Christ
has shaped my life and led me to be here with you.
Many of you know that I was brought up here on Magnolia
and that I sustained a spinal cord injury while swimming in New Orleans
when I was 21. That I had trained as an artist prior to my injury and
now create designs with my mouth for greeting cards and calendars that
are marketed worldwide. You might also know that my wife Anné and I
are building a new home nearby and we both are looking forward to sharing
it during supper club and other events.
You might not know that I was first introduced to the
teachings of Christ by attending seven years of Catholic school across
Interbay at St. Margarets Parish. There I recited my prayers in
Latin and served mass as an altar boy. So devoted to that faith were
my parents that my first name, "Victor," was from the name
of the parish priest in my parents Spokane church where they first
worshipped together and were wed.
Brom today with wife, Anné above the Chain
Bridge in Budapest
I was told that my middle name, "Brom," came
from Abrahams original name, Abram and I also aspired to identify
with the Holy Brahmans of the Hindu tradition and yearned for sacred
wisdom that would help me to put Christs teachings of love and
forgiveness into action.
As a child I think I looked upon Jesus as a sort of
superhero. Like Superman, he was not really of this world and had powers
far beyond those of mortal men. The stories of His raising the dead,
changing water into wine, walking on water and feeding the multitudes
seemed to have placed Him above my ability to relate to Him on a personal
level and it wasnt until I began to recognize the social and religious
reformer in Christ that I could see parallels in the society that I
To learn of the misunderstanding, ridicule, jealousy
and fear that Jesus must have endured during his ministry and his ability
to remain dedicated to his divine calling inspired me and gave me the
courage necessary to deal with problems in my own life well before and
after my injury.
I was blessed to decide on a career in art from an early
age and Anné will tell you I rarely pass up a chance to visit art
museums when were traveling. The religious images by artists of
the past fill me with wonder and I have felt spiritually uplifted while
looking at these images, especially when weve seen them displayed
in a house of worship including the Sistine Chapel and Leonardos
Through drawing and painting I explore my appreciation
for the natural world and investigate processes of growth, decay and
renewal and my pictures are concrete expressions of my personal discoveries.
It became an illumination to me that I could use my artistic abilities
to inspire others with special needs to express themselves and develop
skills that could be transformational.
It was a painful and difficult path that led me to this
realization. At the time of my injury I was living far from home and
feeling rather lonely. New Orleans is a culturally rich city and I began
to develop a circle of creative friends. After living in the city 4
months, I had managed to secure a good job with the largest commercial
sign business in town and was designing, fabricating and servicing large
projects around the area.
Although I frequented the music clubs and art galleries,
I still felt somewhat apart from others and took several solitary bike
rides along the river levee and long walks on my own through the neighborhoods.
I always had faith that God was with me and one evening I felt compelled
to get on my knees, asked Jesus earnestly to come into my heart and
lead me where he would. I even took a favorite drawing I had just done
and burned it as an offering.
A week later, I miscalculated the waters depth
while swimming, hit my head injuring my spinal cord and instantly became
My condition immediately changed my life forever and
put me on a road that could have been full of depression, anger and
loneliness. The prayers that flooded to me from family and friends (and
total strangers I later found out) sustained me in the early weeks and
an extraordinary experience occurred that left no doubt in my mind of
the magnitude of Gods grace.
I was in something called a circle bed. A motorized
contraption that allows the patient to be turned head over heels to
distribute their weight to avoid pressure sores. My head was in traction
with spikes screwed into the sides of my head and I was breathing through
a trache tube inserted in the front of my neck.
Fortunately for me, my mother and brother were present
when the nurses switched on the machine to turn me over. As I got perpendicular
the straps holding me in place became entangled and I started slipping
out of the cots holding me in place. My brother tried to hold me up
while the nurses reversed the machine but it was too late. My trache
tube had caught on the sheet and had been torn from my neck.
In the next moment I was experiencing what I later learned
was a classic near death experience. The scientific term is acute cerebral
hypoxia with no oxygen getting to my brain. My entire field of view
consisted of a bright tunnel of light that I seemed to be surging through
at an amazing speed. An incredible sound of rushing wind filled my senses.
I really wanted to let go, succumb to the light and be carried off but
I soon recognized that I was moving away from reality. I realized that
if I wanted to return to myself I would need to move and feel those
parts of my body that I still could control.
So I started to try to blink my eyes, shrug my shoulders
and turn my head. It wasnt working at first but gradually the
sound of wind started dying down and I started to hear my brothers
voice off in the distance exhorting me to Cmon Brom Cmon.
Then another voice, soothing and calm told me to take
it easy, stop moving around and that I was going to be all right. The
room came back into focus and I realized that it was a doctors
voice and found out how he just happened to be near when I had fallen.
Knowing exactly what to do he had grabbed a resuscitation bag and was
forcing air into me and repositioned my breathing tube so I could breathe
on my own again.
I was scared but exhilarated and tried to explain what
I had just experienced but the trache tube had separated my vocal chords
and they could only read my lips. When my mom said how sorry she was
that I had gone through such an ordeal I assured her that it was a beautiful
experience, full of a warm and loving presence. My fear of death vanished
and I sensed a new appreciation for how precious life is and that stays
with me constantly.
And now I felt that I must have survived for some purpose.
God was not through with me and it would take a couple years of rehabilitation
and a relearning of my craft to be in a position to carry out a new
realization that for me, my purpose is to be in service to others whenever
I can. I would see examples of this in the doctors, nurses and therapists
that worked with me during my time at the UW Hospital.
My first opportunity to do this was at the dental school
at UW Hospital when I was asked to speak to the students about life
with paralysis. I began having regular cleanings for free from the students
and this is where Anne and I would meet some years later and fall in
I decided to take the advice of Joseph Campbell, the
author of The Power of Myth. His philosophy is to Follow your
Bliss. I started to paint. Hundreds of hours were spent painting with
my mouth and opportunities slowly began to appear where I didnt
know they even existed.
Brom conducting a mouth painting demonstration.
I developed an art program at Childrens hospital
and felt a tremendous sense of elation. I set up painting materials
in some of the day rooms and got enormous satisfaction doing my painting
alongside children who in many cases were much more disabled than I
and others who had lived with their disabilities their entire lives.
I witnessed profound depths of character in some of these children whether
in spite of or because of the endurance of their conditions.
Eventually, I received a grant to expand the program
and took art therapy extension courses. I also participated in arts
festivals and began serving on non-profit boards whose programs served
these special populations. Currently, I serve on the Washington State
And here I might mention the grace of God that I have
witnessed in others. Whether sharing in the responsibility of serving
the goals of non-profits, being on the receiving end of help that people
have offered me or being in solidarity with someone newly injured or
affected by a loved ones injury, I see daily the kind and caring
compassion that we all know in our better hours. That I happen to live
with someone who exemplifies these qualities is an even greater testament
to the grace of God.
Now those with paralysis feature in all four gospels
but Johns version is very different from the other four.
As I understand Johns gospel, Jesus is without
his disciples and comes across a man who is hoping that a special pools
water will cure him. We might assume that since hes been in his
condition for so long hes learned to live with it, perhaps by
collecting alms in the place where Jesus encounters him. After hes
cured and Jesus sees him again and warns him to sin no more, its
then that he points Jesus out to the religious authorities. One of the
things this says for me is that in order to not betray Gods trust
we must eliminate sin from our lives.
So God really does work in mysterious ways. As I reread
the gospel passages of Jesus healing those with paralysis I realize
that a cure can take many forms. I have been healed of my pride and
my ego in many ways and I recognize the power and unity of the Holy
I firmly believe that we are constantly accessing the
grace of God when we worship together, engaged in prayer and meditation
but mostly when we do good work, show compassion and help others.
So rather than saying "There but for the Grace
of God go I," maybe we should consider, "There but WITH the
Grace of God go we all."
John 5:1-18 The Healing at the Pool
1 Some time later,
Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.2 Now there
is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called
Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here
a great number of disabled people used to liethe blind, the lame,
the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight
years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been
in this condition for a long time, he asked him, Do you want to
the invalid replied, I have no one to help me into the pool when
the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes
down ahead of me.
8 Then Jesus
said to him, Get up! Pick up your mat and walk. 9 At once
the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
The day on which
this took place was a Sabbath, 10 and so the Jewish leaders said to
the man who had been healed, It is the Sabbath; the law forbids
you to carry your mat.
11 But he replied,
The man who made me well said to me, Pick up your mat and
12 So they asked
him, Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?
13 The man who
was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the
crowd that was there.
14 Later Jesus
found him at the temple and said to him, See, you are well again.
Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you. 15 The man
went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made
16 So, because
Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began
to persecute him. 17 In his defense Jesus said to them, My Father
is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.
18 For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was
he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father,
making himself equal with God.