By David Wilkinson
“Daddy,” said the voice on the cell phone.
I have assumed that only mothers have the gift of knowing instantly from the way a child calls her name if something is wrong, and that we fathers are a little slow on the uptake. That may be true. But if time had frozen after that first word, a two-syllable name I have heard thousands of times from the lips of our now 21-year-old daughter, I think I would have known something was wrong.
The rest of the sentence left my heart in my throat.
“I’ve been in an accident.”
Sometimes a lifetime is contained in a single moment. Six words, spoken into a cell phone 2,000 miles away on the outskirts of Boston, suddenly sucked up every moment of every day, all the dreams, hopes and fears of 55 years of life, 32 years of marriage and 25 years of parenthood and stuffed them into a second of silence.
“I’m OK, I’m not hurt,” Meredith then said. I exhaled, and blood began to pump again.
There was nothing she could do. At night on a dangerous stretch of highway that has virtually no merging lanes for entering vehicles, one driver had veered into the path of the driver in front of her and a frightening, three-car accident ensued. Meredith could easily have been seriously injured. Or worse.
My wife, Melanie, and I were on the highway ourselves when the cell phone had rung. A couple hours later, Meredith was back in her campus apartment, still shaken but safe, and in the comforting company of friends. A lengthy to-do list to complete the insurance claim, deal with her totaled car and arrange alternative transportation could wait a day or two.
After Melanie had voiced a prayer of gratitude and we had processed the night’s turn of events, we drove for a while in silence.
I thought about Meredith’s call. Only a second or two and a few feet had made all the difference. Otherwise, the voice on the phone could have been that of a police officer, an ER doctor or the college chaplain.
I thought about friends who had been on the receiving end of just that kind of call, whose lives were forever changed by somber words that instantly turned a parent’s worst fears into nightmarish reality. I thought of the courage and faith that have enabled them to move forward one step at a time into a future they never wanted. I thought about their heart-breaking yet hopeful testimonies about the loving embrace of the God who knows our deepest pain.
I wondered how I would have responded had the news that night been tragic. Would my faith have held up?
Just a few days earlier, Melanie had read aloud to me several paragraphs from the Spiritual Formation Bible I had given her for Christmas. The editors pointed out that the spiritual practices in and of themselves have no merit. Their singular purpose is “to place us before God.”
“Spiritual disciplines involve doing what we can to receive from God the power to do what we cannot,” Melanie read. “And God graciously uses this process to make us the kind of person who automatically will do what needs to be done when it needs to be done…. Only the disciplined gymnast is free to score a perfect ten on the parallel bars. Only the disciplined violinist is free to play Paganini’s Caprices. This, of course, is true in all of life, but it is never more true than in the spiritual life. When we are on the spot, when we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis, it is too late. Training in the spiritual disciplines is the God-ordained means for forming and transforming the human personality, so that when we are in the crisis we can be ‘response-able’ — able to respond appropriately.”
When tragedy strikes, we cry out to God. And God hears. But we do not suddenly become persons of prayer. When crisis comes, we plead to God for help. And God responds. But we are not suddenly transformed into spiritual giants any more than an overweight, out-of-shape 60-year-old can expect to jump up from the couch and run a marathon in under two hours.
God’s grace is sufficient, and God’s love is without limits. But when our lives are turned upside down, the resources of a vast spiritual reservoir don’t instantly appear. That reservoir is filled over time by the graces of the spiritual disciplines that nurture us, shape us and, yes, prepare us for crises from which we hope with all our hearts to be spared.
No, the spiritual practices are not ends in themselves. But I have returned to them with a renewed fervor as trusted guides for the inward journey of life with God. And if life should ever deal a knee-buckling, gut-wrenching, heart-crushing blow, I pray that I will lean into a mature faith that will enable me to be “response-able.” And trust my family, my community of faith and the grace of God to do the rest.