This past Wednesday, I had lunch with a friend who — not too long ago — was given no chance of surviving a car wreck. Chris bizarrely pulled through being T-boned and ripped apart from shoulder to thigh. Though he had a near-nonexistent chance of ever walking again, here he was with me, four months later, limping along the buffet without a cane or a walker in sight.
Later that night, another friend who had cheated death about a year ago succumbed to an aggressive strain of cancer. During the period between Francis’ dramatic liver transplant last year and his death, he was filled with reflection, outspoken expressions of love, and one major question:
What does one do when he’s already prepared to die… but then death tarries?
The story of Prometheus has always intrigued me. In it, a trickster among the Titans — larger and more powerful than all the primitive humans — shows unexpected mercy on our pathetic race by stealing fire from the gods. These Ancient Greek gods are already known for petty judgment on those deemed weaker than them, and yet Prometheus still goes through with the theft. He shows mercy to the weak, though no one would’ve faulted him for exploiting them like the rest of his peers.
As expected, Prometheus is punished for his theft. He’s chained to a rock, his liver painfully extracted by a hungry eagle. The next morning, his liver’s restored, but here comes that damned bird of prey again, as hungry as he was yesterday.
Bummer of a story, but it’s always stuck with me as a powerful lesson in sacrifice. It’s a heroic template for those courageous enough to rebel against the all-powerful in the name of mercy.
Francis Allen was a lot like Prometheus, and not just because they both received new livers.
Last fall, Francis got his new liver at the end of a dramatic ticking clock — just as his body was shutting down on itself. We had coffee soon after his first death scare, and he met me with a massive embrace. He had nothing but love left, it seemed, having already said his goodbyes and coming to terms with his mortality. And yet the question kept coming back up in our conversation:
“What’s the next thing I can do that will really matter in the whole scheme of things?”
* * *
The first time I met Francis, he had just brought The Unchained Tour to my city (complete with Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction writing/reading debut). The purpose of this tour was to showcase the lost art of personal, unscripted performance across the South, and it literally transformed my life. It’s not a stretch to say that without Unchained, there’d be no Holistic Storyteller.
Later that night, I reached out to Francis, the tour’s producer, on Facebook. Not only did I soon learn that he had grown up with my mother, but I became quickly sucked into his world of curating artistic and cultured experiences for moderate-sized towns in the South.
I’ve since witnessed Francis build a community garden from an ugly lot in downtown Savannah. When I say build, I mean he spent much of each day toiling alone in the South Georgia humidity to get the garden to where it needed to be — whether by building planter boxes, weeding or prepping the soil.
I’ve seen him take his love for great folk art and the unique stories that surround each piece and turn it into a one-of-a-kind gallery for “outsider art.” Some of his best stories centered on a specific painting he’d point to in his gallery or home.
Francis served as a film commissioner for my treasured Savannah film community during a penultimate era when that entire industry exploded. In that season, we’d pick each other’s brains on Facebook regarding what might be the next best steps for healthy community growth.
As director of a conservation group for a local river basin, Francis worked to preserve a fragile local ecosystem. Considering all the community programs & fundraisers such an endeavor entailed, he was perfect for the job.
He championed literacy throughout Georgia by establishing the Flannery O’Connor Little Library project. Like O’Connor, the give-a-book/take-a-book boxes started in Savannah and, thanks to Francis’ influence, they’ll soon be spotted along roads between Savannah and Milledgeville, where O’Connor eventually made her home.
In 2012, Francis produced a controversial-though-life-affirming community art project in Savannah that received global attention for years to come. This seemed to be one of his proudest accomplishments. It was aptly named, “Before I Die…”
Francis Allen was a firebringer whose mischievous laughter still echoes in my mind.
Despite all the self-serving noise and piggybacking that surrounds a guy named Jesus of Nazareth, he’s another lightbringer at the core.
According to biblical accounts, he consistently irritated the religious and political leaders of his day. Though he had exhibited superhuman powers, he made it his sole life’s purpose to champion the powerless. He quite publicly railed against corrupt leaders who wielded God’s name as a weapon against the oppressed. He stepped on some powerful toes in the process, and it got him killed.
Fortunately, he couldn’t seem to stay dead, and he became known as a sacrificial mediator between humans and the Divine. His story continues to offer hope to many in the modern world.
Father Chris Schuller can bring the fire with the best of them.
I first met Chris as a cub reporter in a small South Georgia town, when I interviewed “the new priest” who had spent much of his early life in rock bands. Over milkshakes, we hit it off, and he left the conversation swearing I was a “closeted Episcopalian.”
As I shared a Southern buffet with him this week, I was reminded of that fire. His eager voice carried and his eyes danced as he told me about dying & coming back to life on his birthday back in March. He described his sensations of unfathomable love & light after death, and how those moments in the afterlife made everything in his new life inexplicably beautiful. He first noticed it when wheeled outside the hospital for the first time in days. Among the weeds, a common yellow wildflower brought him the most overwhelming sensation of beauty he had ever experienced. Down another breezeway, the Hollywood sign — in all its gaudy glory — brought tears to his eyes.
Just three days after Chris’ “re-birthday,” he became an overnight celebrity for a video filmed of him before the accident. Many of you might already recognize him as the priest in the viral video A Rabbi, a Priest and an Atheist Smoke Weed Together.
Overnight, the video struck a chord with millions — from marijuana activists, to countless millennials, to non-smokers like Chris & myself. In the video, the atypical trio starts out somewhat awkward, with forced introductions, but the scene quickly evolves into a respectful & heartfelt dialogue among subcultures that rarely interact. Many tears have been shed over this video, my own included.
The video now has more than two-and-a-half million views on YouTube, and it received millions of more views and shares on Facebook. For some reason, it struck a note with disenfranchised global citizens, and Chris says it couldn’t have come at a better time for him.
Chris attests his startling recovery — and the miraculously rapid regrowth of his pulverized bones — to the prayers of these millions of strangers. His doctors were floored, revealing that his pelvis grew back at ten times the rate of an infant’s bone growth. By letting his guard down and lighting that joint (in a state where it’s legal, by the way), Chris sparked fire in a global population feeling oppressed by the less-than-relatable religious leaders in their lives.
Now, he continues to communicate with his online congregation, despite the occasional threat of being defrocked by the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida. For Chris, carrying the torch is worth it. He’s now driven less by climbing prestigious ladders as he is with sharing that overwhelming love and acceptance that he felt at the threshold of death.
We humans have a rich history of lightbringers who have, mercifully, given us vital tools to advance our species. Cervantes. Van Gogh. Copernicus. People who shirked creature comforts & esteem to express resonant meaning where it once remained overlooked.
They may’ve not been deemed the most likely to succeed in their lifetimes — especially among the authorities of their day — but they lived vulnerably, powerfully and for the good of the tribe. I’m fortunate to have known two of the best. Though I don’t know if Francis and Chris ever met, they’re certainly cut from the same cloth.
While Chris feverishly works on his book, and while Francis eagerly soaks in what’s next for his curious soul, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
How blessed are the lightbringers.
How vital are those chaotic-good heroes to our ordinary lives.
How blessed are we who get to live among them, ever so briefly, and recognize their gifts for what they are.
How blessed are those who have the means and the wits to exploit, but instead they show mercy to those around them.
May their influence ever expand.
May we, the influenced, inherit their courage.
May we find opportunities to carry their embers wherever our own courage allows.
May we spark new life in a groaning human species, and may we find joy in doing so, eyes twinkling and defiant laughter ringing out.
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SWAMP LIFE – Day Two: The Power of Vision
SWAMP LIFE – Day One: Trying Out Superhumanity
The Immortal Legend Lives!