The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. The LORD is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed.
-- Psalm 28:7-8 NRSV
The little gears in my head that usually begin turning on Tuesday, eventually causing my fingers to tap out a meditation on Wednesday, were turning rather slowly this week. Perhaps I am in need of oiling. Some fits and starts, to be sure, but nothing worth inflicting on others. I had resigned myself to skip this e-mail this week and start again post-Monday.
Then I returned home late in the afternoon yesterday, only to be greeted by a surprising message on my phone. It is always pleasant when the blinking "1" on your machine announces elation instead of sorrow. A familiar voice beamed through the tiny speaker:
"Ralph. This is Murrell Routon. I hope you and your family are well."
In my head: Thanks Murrell. You too.
"Do you know where you were a year ago today?"
Suddenly a rolodex of year-old memories began spinning in my mind, and for a brief instant, I wondered if I was in some kind of trouble! Let's see … a year ago today … September … Then it hit me. Of course!
But Murrell's message beat me to the punch:
"You were at UVA Medical Center praying for me with my family …"
My how time flies. It is hard to believe that Murrell's terrible tractor accident—an event I trust most of you remember—was twelve months ago. (And right there in my kitchen I had yet another of those moments we all seem to have a few times a year, when one realizes just how much time has passed by in a flurry.) My thoughts quickly went back to that long and dreadful night in Charlottesville, when our friend's life hung in the balance. For hours, I had expected the worst even as we prayed for the best. It would be several days before I knew if our congregation would ever greet Murrell again. It would be weeks before Murrell could even be awakened. What a frightening time for his wife and family.
The end of Murrell's brief message jarred me from my heavy remembering and brought me back to my kitchen:
"I just called to thank you and to say how grateful I am to God to be alive."
Indeed. Thanks be to God.
Novelist Walker Percy, himself a Christian (in the Roman Catholic tradition), once observed that whether or not the gospel is good news largely depends on your situation. If one sees nothing wrong with the way things are, nothing threatening or calamitous in this life, then there is really no news to tell (or better: no news you'll be able to hear). But when one knows himself to be "stranded on a island," when one has known even a bit of the disorientation that this fallen-short life can bring, then the gospel becomes "good news from across the seas." Only those who have known themselves to be stranded can properly celebrate a rescue; only those who have known good grace learn to sing good songs of thanks.
Murrell wasn't actually singing on my machine last evening, else I might have mistaken his call for a crank advertisement for payday loans. (I hate those.) And yet, in quite another way, he was singing oh so loudly. One could hear in his voice the glad "exulting of his heart" about which the psalmist sings. One could hear echoes of Psalm 28: "The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts … and with my song I give thanks to him." And the nice thing about other's songs of thanks is that they get us singing as well. For a few moments, my eyes watered with thoughts of what could have been and—mercifully!—what turned out to be. What a gift he gave us!
To be sure, other days and other messages bring news of distress, disorientation, disaster. There is a certain mystery in that fact. But we baptized folk have learned always to pause and give thanks to the great Giver of Life when in fact it is good news that comes across the wire, from across the seas.
The psalmists, and good friends like Murrell, have taught us so.